In September, a major deal struck with MoMA and the Avery Library saw the full archive of Frank Lloyd Wright arrive in New York. To mark the moment, AR looks back over the American architect’s revolutionary career
The recent announcement that the archives of Frank Lloyd Wright will move from his home in the Arizona desert to the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and Avery Library in New York begins at once to change our perception of his work. Not only does it place an archive of incredible richness on the doorstep of a vast public and scholarly audience, but it suggests that Wright will again find himself where he belongs: at the centre of a continuing debate on how to adapt the shapes of architecture to the changing patterns of modern living.
Wright’s career lasted for 70 years. He was born just after the assassination of Lincoln, and his last works were nearing completion when Kennedy died. The world he built in went from horse and buggy to space flight, telegraph office to television studio, and an economic life drawn from the land to one made by the machine. His impact was extraordinary. There are 1,000 projects, nearly 400 of them built, for almost every type of building in the landscape, rendered and conceived in one of the most extraordinary, varied and inventive arrays of sketches, drawings and models in the history of representation.
For many of these long years and in many parts of the world − notably his own country − Wright was a lonely and slightly forgotten figure. But by the 1950s, as post-Fascist Europe turned to his work as models that seemed to counter the monumentalism of the last decades, people were lining the canals of Venice in their thousands simply to doff caps as the now-familiar figure in cape and hat glided by; while in New York, where he had settled to complete the near-endless task of seeing the Guggenheim to completion, he found another kind of fame as a legendary character in the daily drama of popular culture, a regular attraction on television, an icon for Mad Ave, and a quotable source for magazine features and opinions on any subject of the time.
Wright’s unmistakable drawings stand between 19th-century Arts and Crafts Japanoiserie and abstract Modernist axonometry
As his fame grew, however, Wright began to relish the stance of the lonely prophet, and let himself be stranded on an intellectual mountaintop − too far from the current of ideas in architecture and the arts that had once done so much to inform him, and taking little account of the enormous changes in American society and culture with which he was for long so much in tune.
It has been hard not to take the great man at his word and to cast his work, as he cast his growing legend, in the mould of the single-minded prophet. We have looked at his changing ideas as a set of fixed principles and the dynamic shifts in his work as the slowly evolving line of an ‘organic’ ideal. In fact, the archives show his works changing as radically as the times they were made for, and Wright − for all but the last years − repeatedly reinventing architecture to fit the volatile state of society and its patterns of living. Much of his own discourse was built on the notion that flux is the true constant and that progress comes through a continued search for new forms.
A plan view of the same design, the unbuilt ‘Cloverleaf’ mass housing project of 1942, shows Eastern influence in its swastika layout
These constant changes in the focus of Wright’s reforming gaze are the most evident subject of the archives, and the great debates that they reflect − between city and suburb, vertical and horizontal, monolith and montage − are its most eloquent texts. He starts with a mission to re-shape the domestic space of the progressive bourgeois family, the ideal that marked his Prairie Years; returns from Europe in 1911 with an agenda that would rearrange the whole disordered visual fabric of the American city into a coherent sculptural pattern; then, like so many artists in the uncertain aftermath of the Great War, turns to the search for new and more dynamic geometries in which to organise our patterns of living and our relationship to the land; finally, he tempers these flights of fancy, in the sober climate in which late 1930s America tried to reconstruct itself, to a new low-lying, earthbound landscape for living, in an ambitious programme of systematic works that effectively established a new national language for the built landscape.
It is in that moment that we see him here, as he stands back to appraise his own drawings for workers’ housing in Massachusetts. These were to be clustered homes with vertically layered zones, central mezzanines and openings to sunlight. With them Wright − as so often − brings us firmly but with miraculous originality into the great architectural discussion of the time, which was how to re-house American families in the postwar world. Just as surely it shows how direct was Wright’s influence − widely published and commented as these experiments were − on the worldwide debate on housing and community and on the most influential example that was to follow it, the Unité d’Habitation of his great rival for the title of Modern Architect, Le Corbusier.