New York show offers insights into Frank Lloyd Wright

A work at the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition, Unpacking The Archive.
A work at the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition, Unpacking The Archive. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • From a skyscraper twice the height of today's tallest building to self-sufficient farms designed to offset the Great Depression during the 1930s, a New York exhibition is spotlighting the hidden projects and dreams of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Unpacking The Archive is the product of painstaking research from thousands of documents that lay dormant in the personal archive of Wright, that most famous and revered of US architects.

The exhibition comes 150 years after his birth. Opening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York yesterday and running until Oct 1, it offers a new glimpse into Wright five years after the institution, together with Columbia University, acquired the legend's archives.

"He has been the most exhibited and lionised architect in the museum's history," said curator Barry Bergdoll. "Probably the only architect that is almost more popular with the general public than with the architect community."

Spread across 13 rooms, the exhibition explores little-known aspects of the work and personality of the architect. Wright was born in 1867 on the prairies of Wisconsin and his career spanned seven decades until his death in 1959 at 91.

He is best known for the Guggenheim art museum in New York and "organic architecture" such as his 1930s "Fallingwater" house built over a stream in Pennsylvania.

But only half of the 1,000 projects he conceived ever materialised.

However, Wright kept everything: different versions, some of them annotated; designs that were themselves revolutions in graphics; ultra-detailed models; photos of himself at work; rejection letters; and newspaper clippings.

Even when his projects were rejected, that did not stop him shopping them around with an innate sense of marketing.

One of them was Little Farms, dreamt up in the early 1930s to create self-sufficiency for workers laid off during the Great Depression, and which would allow urban communities to buy fresh products in nearby markets.

The project never saw the light of day, but Wright promoted it until his death, even going to the Soviet Union in 1937, at the height of the Stalin purges, to visit collectives and attend an architecture congress in Moscow.

Another fantasy was the Mile- High Illinois - a 1.6km-high skyscraper - which Wright unveiled at a press conference in Chicago in 1956 at age 89, 21/2 years before his death.

On one blueprint, he wrote that it could house 100,000 people over six million sq ft, with 15,000 parking spaces and 100 spots to park helicopters.

Sixty years later, the highest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is only half as tall at 828m.

He understood the potential of mass media early and never lost a chance to grace the small screen.

The exhibition includes footage from his appearance as a guest on the What's My Line? game show in 1956, in which blindfolded contestants had to guess his identity. When one finally pipes up "world-famous architect", Wright beams.

"If Wright were here today, he'd be everywhere on social media," said Mr Bergdoll.

"He would understand the relationship of new technology to fame, to getting your message out and keeping yourself in the public eye.

"The fact that he was able to do that when he was in his 80s, in a very persistent and even charming way, is pretty impressive," he added.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2017, with the headline 'New York show offers insights into Frank Lloyd Wright'. Print Edition | Subscribe