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Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal

Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal
24 Jan 2014

The Museum of Modern Art presents the exhibition 'Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal'. Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959)—perhaps the most influential American architect of the 20th century—was deeply ambivalent about cities. For decades, Wright was seen as the prophet of America’s post–World War II suburban sprawl, yet the dispersed cities that he envisaged were also carefully planned—quite distinct from the disorganized landscapes that often developed instead. Paradoxically, Wright was also a lifelong prophet of the race for height that has played out around the world.

Through an initial selection of drawings, films, and large-scale architectural models, the exhibition examines the tension in Wright’s thinking about the growing American city from the 1920s to the 1950s, when he worked simultaneously on radical new forms for the skyscraper and on a comprehensive plan for the urbanization of the American landscape titled --Broadacre City.

Model of the H.C. Price Company Tower under construction by Taliesin Fellows. n.d. Photograph, 7 3/4 x 9 1/2” (19.7 x 24.1 cm). The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

On view is Wright’s 1934–35 manifesto project, for what he called --Broadacre City, which embodied his quest for a city of private houses set in nature and spread across the countryside. He believed that advances in technology had rendered obsolete the dense cities created by industry and immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Distributed along a rectilinear grid, these one-acre homesteads were to be combined with small-scale manufacturing, community
centers, and local farming, and interspersed with parklands to form a carpet-like pattern of urbanization.

Frank Lloyd Wright. Broadacre City. Project, 1934–35. Model: painted wood, 152 x 152” (386.1 x 386.1 cm). The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)







This dispersed vision is paired with Wright's innovative structural experiments for building the vertical city, which engaged questions of urban density and sought to bring light and landscape settings to tall buildings. His ambitions grew from a 24-story design for the offices of the San Francisco Call newspaper (1913) to the 548-story, mile-high tower he envisioned in Chicago (1956)—a building large enough to house the entire population of Broadacre City. Wright’s proposal for the San Francisco Call Building celebrates verticality: repeated piers emphasize the height, drawing the eye up to a startlingly cantilevered cornice pierced with slots that frame the sky and allow daylight to wash the facades for dramatic effect. His design for the National Life Insurance Company Building (1924–5) features a tower clad entirely in glass, setting aside the load-bearing frame of the Call Building to experiment with the curtain wall and other new building technologies. The project reveals Wright as a key participant in international debates on the possibility of cladding a tall building with a transparent glass facade, rather than cladding it in ornamental masonry for decorative effect.

Frank Lloyd Wright. Mile High, Chicago. 1956. Perspective. Pencil, colored pencil, and ink on tracing paper, 105 x 30” (266.7 x 76.2 cm). The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

An unregulated building boom in the 1920s in New York and Chicago resulted in an unprecedented urban density that Wright described as --congestion. In response, he devised the Skyscraper Regulation—a set of design rules governing the lateral and vertical growth of American cities. By regulating the location and height of tall buildings, Wright sought to optimize light and views and to minimize the effects of closely spaced tall buildings that were turning urban streets into shadowy canyons. Wright’s Skyscraper Regulation was his last attempt to address the inherited city. He would turn instead to devising a set of regulations for an entirely new and dispersed urban fabric (Broadacre City), in which the unit of the city block was exchanged for the farmed acre.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Eugene Masselink at the exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright, American Architect. November 13, 1940–January 5, 1941. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. Photo by Soichi Sunami

In 1927, Wright’s design for the financially troubled Church of St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery dramatically transformed the building by having the floors project outward from a single central core plunged deep into the ground. The concrete floors tapered toward the periphery, which he compared to the structural concept of the --taproot of a tree. This --taproot structure was finally tested in built form in the S.C. Johnson & Son Research Laboratory Tower (1943–50) in Racine, Wisconsin. In 1956, Wright unveiled a 26-foot-tall rendering of a gleaming, vertiginously tapered skyscraper—which he said would house 100,000 employees of the state of Illinois. The mile-high tower adopts the --taproot structure he had articulated 30 years before, in which a skyscraper’s vertical ascent is stabilized by a foundation plunged deep into the ground. Both a polemic and a rationalized proposal for the future of tall buildings, the Mile High marks the definitive return of Wright’s tower to the city. The Mile High embodies Wright’s paradoxical attitude toward the American city: meant to condense the experience of urban life and work within a single telescoping form, freeing the ground for the realization of Broadacre, holding in tension two idealized images of the city—its extraordinary vertical reach and its extreme horizontal extension.

Frank Lloyd Wright. St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie Towers, New York. 1927–31. Aerial perspective. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 23 3/4 x 15” (60.3 x 38.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Jeffrey P. Klein Purchase Fund, Barbara Pine Purchase Fund, and Frederieke Taylor Purchase Fund

Exhibition: Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal
From February 1 to June 1 2014

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