America is celebrating famed native son architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th anniversary with exhibitions great and small — and ongoing opportunities — that explore Wright’s artistry and vision.
Starting close to home, the Historical Society of Princeton (HSP) has a small display of two designs of a proposed Princeton house on display through the end of the year.
Part of the archives and brought out for the celebration, the plans were designed for Bradford Mills, who met Wright in the 1950s and asked the architect to design a house for a property off Pretty Brook Road.
Mills, 90, says in a telephone interview from his New Hope home that he got the idea to ask for a Wright design when he was discharged from military service, serving in both World War II and the Korean War. “I was hitch-hiking back from the West Coast and there was a solar energy conference in Phoenix (Arizona). That led me to Wright (who spoke about using solar energy for houses). After the conference I went to him in my uniform and asked if he would help a serviceman build a solar house. And he said yes.”
Wright designed two. The first appeared in 1955 as a solar house. But Mills felt the design wasn’t going to work on the East Coast for several reasons, including using only rocks to cool the house in the summer. So he asked for another design. A second appeared in 1957 as a more conventional Wright home. It also had the high conventional Wright fee ($125,000 at the time, approximately $1,090,000 in 2017) and the deal stalled.
At the time, Mills, Princeton ’48, was working as a member of the finance department for F. Eberstadt & Company in New York City — he would later become managing partner of Bradford Associates. His salary was $5,000 a year. “I couldn’t pay for it.” he says.
He did pay for the designs that ended up as gifts to the HSP. “I had an architect for my home in Princeton, Bill Short, who also worked for Mr. Wright on the Guggenheim. He was also involved with the Historical Society.” Mills loaned and then gave Wright’s Princeton home plans to the organization. “(Wright) was a very unusual man. I enjoyed my time with him,” says Mills.
If built the Mills House would have become just one of just a handful of Wright houses built in New Jersey. The one closest to the region, Bachman-Wilson House, recently moved by its architect owners from Millstone, where it often flooded, to the Crystal Bridge Museum of Art in Arkansas (U.S. 1, October 24, 2012).
In New York City, the Museum of Modern Art exhibition is “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive,” on view through Sunday, October 1.
The “archive” is the combination of Wright materials reflecting decades of work — from the late 19th century through 1950s — and the realization of 523 of his 1,000 designs. Formerly known as the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, the collection of 55,000 drawings, 300,000 sheets of correspondence, 125,000 photos, and 2,700 manuscripts as well as films, building models, and even building fragments are now jointly managed by the Museum of Modern Art and Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University.
The exhibition features about 400 works. It is structured as an anthology rather than a comprehensive, monographic presentation of Wright’s work and is divided into 12 sections investigating a key object or cluster of objects, according to MOMA materials.
MOMA puts Wright’s contributions in perspective in no small way by naming him “one of the most prolific and renowned architects of the 20th century, a radical designer and intellectual who embraced new technologies and materials, pioneered do-it-yourself construction systems as well as avant-garde experimentation, and advanced original theories with regards to nature, urban planning, and social politics.”
The tacit subject of the exhibition is Wright’s approach, which he summed up as “organic architecture.” That’s something he elaborated on in a statement (not in the exhibition): “I stand declaring organic architecture to be the modern ideal and the teaching so much needed if we are to see the whole of life, and to now serve the whole of life, holding no ‘traditions’ essential to the great TRADITION. Nor cherishing any preconceived form fixing upon us either past, present or future, but — instead — exalting the simple laws of common sense — or of super-sense if you prefer — determining form by way of the nature of materials.”
As the exhibition catalog shows, Wright’s “whole” approach included a unified vision using the repetition motifs created by abstracting natural elements, decorative and geometric forms, and materials within and outside of his buildings
An American inspired by American transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who called for breaking from the European traditions, learning directly from nature, and self-reliance, and Walt Whitman, who set out to give voice to the spirit of New World democracy, Wright used the American landscape to create new spaces using new methods and materials but with an eye towards nourishing an “instinct for love and beauty” — something mentioned in a statement in which he states he is following Whitman’s example to keep the human spirit free.
As evidenced by the exhibition, Wright was an accomplished 2-D artist, and his drawing and designs provide keys to his architecture. Take the logo he created for the Friends of Our Native Landscape — a geometric design symbolic of Wright’s views on nature and humanity. A horizontal line represents the prairie, something Wright called fundamental and something he loved. Other abstractions are of elemental conditions and “nature’s most effective readymade decoration,” dried weeds and seed pods. Also included is a Native American symbol of life — a pre-Nazi appropriation swastika — here drawing attention to the displacement of Native Americans and the new Americans’ “taking over the landscape and trust from the Indians.”
Another is a pictorial design using triangles, lines, and colors that are an abstraction of Western American terrains, and show “various cacti, rock formations, and lichen distilled into their essential organizing forms in these applied pattern studies, demonstrating the generative relationship between nature and architecture in Wright’s practice.” It is that relationship and Wright’s orchestration of details to create an interconnected work — linking nature and new materials — that slowly reveal themselves to the viewer in the exhibition.
And while designs for some of Wright’s more notable accomplishments are expected — Fallingwater (1934-’37) and the Guggenheim Museum (1943-’59) — others surprise by showing strikingly different sides of Wright’s interests and artistry — and his audacity.
Take Wright’s Little Farm project, Depression-era prefabricated farms that would enable people to lead independent productive lives and find physical and spiritual sustenance. The exhibition area includes a farm model, images of Wright working on a farm with studio interns in Wisconsin, and a design for a farm stand — “a terraced ziggurat filled with greenery — a veritable temple of consumerism constructed of copper, glass, and reinforced concrete,” notes the exhibition text and catalog.
The text claim that “Wright understood the importance of spectacle” is spectacularly reflected in another project: the proposed Mile High Building in 1956. Curator Barry Bergdoll calls it “an incredible attention-getting thing” and a way for the 87-year-old architect to assert himself in the public’s imagination and show creative vitality. While the design was never realized, it still resonates with his desire to create a 528-story space to house 100,000 people, 15,000 cars, and 100 helicopters.
The building also proposed several stories devoted to television studios — a new communications technology Wright was learning to use to further his presence in the public mind — as demonstrated in the exhibition area where Wright appears as a mystery guest on the popular 1950s television show “What’s My Line?”
One area of the exhibition can be seen as a way to move from the exhibition into actually experiencing a Wright building: the Guggenheim Museum. While the exhibition features a model and color ideas for Wright’s reinvention of a museum, the physical structure is just several blocks away.
Yet one doesn’t need to head to New York City to experience a major Wright building. His Beth Shalom Synagogue (1953-’59) in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, is roughly 35 miles from the U.S. 1 region and open for regular one-hour tours.
The National Historic Landmark is unusual in several ways. Although Wright had been approached several times to construct a synagogue, this is the only such commission he accepted. It is also the only commission where he shares a co-designer.
Beth Shalom is an imposing visual statement: a pyramid-like mountain of glass rising atop of a foundation marked by triangular protrusions rising up to surround half of the building. The building fulfills Wright’s promise, “Your temple will be ‘Mount Sinai cupped in the hands of God.’” He also suggested that the raised roof reflected ancient tent structures.
Guide Alan Rothman — a retired Rohm and Haas researcher and Beth Shalom congregation member — begins his tour in the visitor’s center near the entrance, a space repurposed from one of the meeting rooms to house an exhibition of drawings and correspondence and to show a film.
Narrated by actor Leonard Nimoy — who in 2003 had performed in the “Souls on Fire” cantata at Beth Shalom — the 22-minute film chronicles how the Philadelphia-based synagogue found itself at a crossroads with the post-World War II expansion of American suburbs and needed to build a new temple.
In brief, Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen wanted to embrace a new era of change and reinvigoration of the life — especially Jewish life — after World War II. Realizing that the Jewish practice of governing a congregation reflected American democracy, he wanted to reflect that spirit in a new building and began asking his colleagues for the architect who could best do that and was told to contact Wright.
In 1953 Cohen wrote a letter to Wright and asked him to take on creating “a new thing — the American spirit wedded to the ancient spirit of Israel.”
Wright in turn invited Cohen to his New York office where he told him, “I do not build Jewish synagogues, but I will build an American one,” and the deal was done.
But there were two twists. Since Wright was a Unitarian and uninformed about Jewish tradition, Cohen decided to send him notes and design suggestions. The usually independent Wright — who was using a previous design as a starting point — found the suggestions informative and incorporated them into plan. From there he considered Cohen a co-designer.
The other twist involved finances. There were none. And when Cohen told Wright about it, the architect told him not to worry and he would supply him with drawings that would attract the backing. Wright did, and so did the drawings — yet not as fast as Wright and Cohen may have hoped. The synagogue was dedicated on September 20, 1959; Wright had died five months earlier.
As Rothman leads a tour through the building, he points to various design motifs: the triangles — the same that appeared in the MOMA designs — appear and reappear in various places and even create Stars of David in lighting fixtures. “He loved triangles,” says Rothman.
Then in the main sanctuary more than 1,000 worshippers gather in uneven seating that has congregants looking towards others to create a sense of community and democracy. Then there is the sand-colored sloped floor that suggests the desert — the biblical and the American. Overhead is the metaphoric and literal heaven, with the glass and plexiglass covering bringing light to the sanctuary’s ceiling and letting it change with the day. Then at night the light of the sanctuary illuminates the mountain and serves as a beacon.
“It’s form over function,” says Rothman, pointing out how the floor changes as if walking over uneven natural terrain and often makes people stumble and makes standing difficult during services, how the glass and concrete make cooling and heating difficult, and how the mountainous ceiling results in more light but also one of the hallmarks of a Wright building: water leakage.
Yet, he says, standing in the great open space bathed in light, the building is also a work of art — something that gets to the heart of Wright’s vision.
Historical Society of Princeton, Updike Farmstead, Quaker Road, Princeton. Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 4 p.m., $3. Free on Thursdays, 4 to 7 p.m. www.princetonhistory.org.
Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York. Sunday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Fridays to 8 p.m. $25. Free Fridays 4 to 8 p.m. www.moma.org.
Beth Shalom Synagogue, 8231 Old York Road, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Tours Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays or by appointment, $10 to $12. 215-887-1342 ext. 106 or www.bethsholompreservation.org.