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May 29, 2009

Earlier this week I visited a new exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the recently-opened Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward. At first the prospect of another FLW exhibit, like another FLW monograph, was wearying. Is he really the only American architect we care to celebrate? Granted having the show in a building he designed may help, though the most playful and unusual use the spiraling, white museum has gotten of late was as a monument defaced by assassins' bullet holes in the rather poor Clive Owen film “The International.”

I loved this early sketch for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Imagine if it were pink!
I loved this early sketch for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Imagine if it were pink!
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Ezra Stoller's photo of Wright's Marin County Civic Center is stunning still.
Ezra Stoller's photo of Wright's Marin County Civic Center is stunning still.
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Wright's Mile High Office Tower, dubbed "The Illinois" was never realized. He hoped to capture all the life of a city in a single tower, turning it into a purely vertical experience. The animation is by Harvard Graduate School of Design professor Allen Sa
Wright's Mile High Office Tower, dubbed "The Illinois" was never realized. He hoped to capture all the life of a city in a single tower, turning it into a purely vertical experience. The animation is by Harvard Graduate School of Design professor Allen Sayegh with Justin Chen and John Pugh.
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This model of Wright's never-built Huntington Hartford Sports Club/Play Resort was made by Situ Studio in Brooklyn. It was to be built in Los Angeles as a pleasure center for the wealthy.
This model of Wright's never-built Huntington Hartford Sports Club/Play Resort was made by Situ Studio in Brooklyn. It was to be built in Los Angeles as a pleasure center for the wealthy.
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I loved this early sketch for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Imagine if it were pink!
I loved this early sketch for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Imagine if it were pink!

Imagine my surprise when Curatorial Assistant for Architecture and Design Maria Nicanor walked with me through an imaginative and thorough recapitulation of the career of architecture’s most out-sized canonical figure. Nicanor said that “the idea behind the show is to really demonstrate how Wright thought about the interior space first, and then worked outward. We want people to think about how important the spaces they’re in are, and then think about how to be more critical of them, and how to demand better spaces.

“He broke out of the Victorian box and sought to redefine space,” she continued. “He wanted to cater to people’s needs and address them, even if he happened to have to do a little re-educating along the way.”

Ezra Stoller's photo of Wright's Marin County Civic Center is stunning still.
Ezra Stoller's photo of Wright's Marin County Civic Center is stunning still.

The fact that the show followed a roughly chronological course was nicely enacted by the museum itself. As one wanders up the central ramp one advances through Wright’s career, culminating at the Guggenheim Museum, a work that opened six months after his death in 1959. Little is hung on the walls on the way up, though plenty of photographs are projected onto the white walls. “One of the ideas with this exhibit is to leave the building as untouched as possible. So we have photos projected, and then there are moments when the projections stop altogether and you just have the blank, white walls.”

Wright's Mile High Office Tower, dubbed "The Illinois" was never realized. He hoped to capture all the life of a city in a single tower, turning it into a purely vertical experience. The animation is by Harvard Graduate School of Design professor Allen Sa
Wright's Mile High Office Tower, dubbed "The Illinois" was never realized. He hoped to capture all the life of a city in a single tower, turning it into a purely vertical experience. The animation is by Harvard Graduate School of Design professor Allen Sayegh with Justin Chen and John Pugh.

By way of addressing the persistent problem of how to render architecture in a museum, the curators opted to vary the show as much as they could. Though photos by the likes of Ezra Stoller and Pedro Guerrero, drawings by Wright and sketches by those in his office do much of the work, the museum also commissioned Situ Studio in Brooklyn and Kennedy Fabrications and Architectural Models to better show how Wright’s buildings operate in three dimensions, as well as to make plain the guts of the things.

A handful of animations from the Harvard Graduate School of Design are also on view, a few of them based on little more than just one of Wright’s drawings. One of the best parts of the show for me was seeing the works that were never produced. From a planetarium in Maryland to Steel Cathedral to a city plan for Baghdad, Wright’s unproduced work shed as much light on the genius—and megalomania—of an architect from whom we have most assuredly not heard the last.

This model of Wright's never-built Huntington Hartford Sports Club/Play Resort was made by Situ Studio in Brooklyn. It was to be built in Los Angeles as a pleasure center for the wealthy.
This model of Wright's never-built Huntington Hartford Sports Club/Play Resort was made by Situ Studio in Brooklyn. It was to be built in Los Angeles as a pleasure center for the wealthy.

Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward runs through August 23rd before it heads off to the Guggenheim in Bilbao. See it if you get the chance.
 

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