Tower Records

Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive edited by Barry Bergdoll, Jennifer Gray, John Desmond, Carole Fabian, Elizabeth Hawley, Juliet Kinchin, Neil Levine, Ellen Moody, Therese O'Malley, Ken Oshima, Michael Osman, Spyros Papapetros, Janet Parks, Matthew Skjonsberg, David Smiley, M Wilson. The Museum of Modern Art. Hardcover, 256 pages. $65.

There are fifty-five thousand drawings in Frank Lloyd Wright’s archive. Even for an architect so famously aeonian and prolific—he worked ceaselessly from his early twenties until his death, in 1959, at ninety-one—this seems like a suspiciously high number. The inescapable conclusion is that Wright himself created only some fraction of these images. But then who drew the rest? It is often impossible to tell. Making a building is a complex undertaking, and architecture is by nature a sprawling, conjunctive practice. Wright worked with dozens of students, employees, consultants, and collaborators over the years, and their output, too, ended up in his archive. Many of the drawings are unsigned and undated. Some are likely by multiple draftsmen. While most can be linked to a particular building or project, others have not been definitively identified. Nor does the confusion end there. Wright’s archive contains an additional 125,000 photographs, 300,000 pages of correspondence, and thousands of manuscripts—more than half a million pieces of paper all told. And in a bizarre twist, the archive is still growing today, almost six decades after the architect’s death, as new items are discovered and identified within the vast troves of material that Wright left behind.

The archive, then, presents a peculiar paradox. Wright is nothing if not well known. His name has become almost synonymous with his profession: More books have been written about him (in addition to his widely read autobiography) than about any other architect who has ever lived; each one of the 532 buildings he constructed over the course of his career has been meticulously catalogued in the twelve volumes of his complete works; and he has been the subject of countless exhibitions, articles, and scholarly essays. Yet as we look into his archive, the contours of his authorship and the very boundaries of his oeuvre begin to dissolve. If, in the most literal sense, we don’t always know where his hand started or stopped, how much do we really know about how he worked, what he thought, or even the buildings he created?

These are the intriguing questions raised by Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive, edited by Barry Bergdoll and Jennifer Gray, the catalogue for an exhibition they recently organized at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2012, MoMA (where Bergdoll is a curator and Gray is a research assistant) jointly acquired the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives with the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University (where Bergdoll and Gray both teach). The final shipments arrived in New York last year from Wright’s studios in Wisconsin and Arizona, and this volume is both a celebration of the acquisition of the archive and a first attempt to reveal the unexplored potential it contains. Accordingly, the emphasis is on the new: inviting “new interpretations” of Wright’s work by opening up his archive to “new voices, new contexts, and new questions,” as Bergdoll and Avery director Carole Ann Fabian put it in their introduction. In order to emphasize the full range and depth of the available material, Bergdoll and Gray solicited essays from a diverse group of fourteen scholars, most of whom had never written about Wright before, and encouraged them to dig into the archive in order to address “little-known aspects of Wright’s work.”

Bergdoll’s essay is paradigmatic. He focuses on an unbuilt project that was, if not entirely unknown, certainly something of an obscure footnote in Wright scholarship: the Mile-High Illinois, a skyscraper the architect proposed for Chicago in 1956. The design is seldom discussed in part because it seems like such an anomaly in Wright’s oeuvre. Throughout his career, he was known as a ferociously outspoken opponent of urbanization. In 1932, he published The Disappearing City, a polemical tract promoting a mode of suburban, low-density development that had more in common with the garden-city model of the late nineteenth century than with the ballooning metropolises of the early twentieth, and he continued to advocate for various versions of this approach until his death. Why would he conceive of such an enormous tower, one that would have concentrated the population of a small city—the Mile-High Illinois would have housed 130,000 tenants—into a single point?

In search of an answer, Bergdoll focuses on one of Wright’s drawings for the project, which has an obscure inscription that had never before been analyzed by scholars. The text dedicates the project to a number of distinguished architects and engineers and lists highlights from Wright’s résumé. It positions him as the heir to the tradition of structural innovation in tall-building design and emphasizes his deep roots in Chicago, where he began his career working for the master Louis Sullivan (widely regarded as the inventor of the modern skyscraper). This turns out to have been a highly strategic self-presentation. When Wright published this design at the age of eighty-nine, he had been largely elided from the histories of modern architecture being written in the postwar era. Most major architectural historians credited his early, turn-of-the-century work as enormously influential, but then argued that his ideas had migrated to Europe in the 1910s and ’20s, where they helped to inspire the true modernist avant-gardes, like the Bauhaus. Most galling to Wright was the fact that by the ’50s, many European modernists had immigrated to America, where they were far busier than he was—a case in point being Mies van der Rohe, whose iconic steel and glass towers were, by 1956, popping up all over Chicago just as a massive building campaign by Mayor Richard Daley was entering full swing. Wright’s staggeringly ambitious tower proposal was an assertion that—whatever feelings he had expressed about cities in the past—he was more qualified than any architect alive to receive commissions for large urban projects.

And so what initially appears to be a flight of architectural fancy actually turns out to have been a shrewd career move. Nor was it such an anomaly. Bergdoll points out that one of Wright’s dedications is to the Czech engineer J. J. Polivka, who not only consulted on the technical feasibility of Wright’s tower design but also did the structural calculations for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s spiraling ramp and collaborated with Wright on the designs for several large-scale infrastructure projects, now largely forgotten but all richly documented in the archive. One of the most elegant is the fluidly arcing Butterfly Wing Bridge proposed for the San Francisco Bay in 1953, an astonishingly contemporary design that portends the digitally driven organicism of many architects working today. Bergdoll’s research, in other words, underscores the ongoing resonance of Wright’s work. And by shifting the Mile-High Illinois into a surprisingly central position within Wright’s oeuvre, he also demonstrates that even Wright’s seemingly most singular ideas emerged in dialogue with a network of collaborators and in dynamic exchange with his political and cultural context.

Not every dive into the archive is so fruitful. Urban historian David Smiley chooses to revisit Wright’s famous Broadacre City, the utopian plan at the heart of his 1932 anti-urban manifesto, in which 1,400 families would live in an ideal agrarian community distributed over four square miles, with each house occupying an entire acre. This proposal has been widely discussed in the literature on Wright, including by Neil Levine, who is also, incidentally, one of the few established Wright scholars who contributed to this volume. Smiley, in a feat of archival excavation, collected an impressive array of documentation relating to the project, including early annotated sketches as well as photographs of an enormous model of Broadacre City under construction in Wright’s studio. At the end of his engrossing and meticulously detailed account, however, Smiley has not proceeded much beyond his initial assertion that Broadacre City amounts to “an architectural claim that the metropolis was obsolete”—not a particularly new take on a scheme Wright himself published in a volume titled The Disappearing City—and that “its social life and spatial experience elude clear definition,” a point his exhaustive research bears out perhaps a little too well.

Digging deeper into the archive, then, does not automatically produce more profound insights about the material it contains. Yet there is a faintly teleological premise underpinning this book—an underlying faith that the archive will inevitably produce new knowledge—perhaps best encapsulated in the closing line of the contribution from Janet Parks, the Avery’s curator: “Further examination of the drawings will continue to deepen the understanding of one of history’s greatest creative minds.” There is no question that increasing access to this cornucopia is good for Wright scholarship and the field of architectural history. But by opening up the archive, Bergdoll and Gray have foregrounded both the dilemma of choice and the necessity of analysis. In a sense, they pose a temporal version of the old problem of the map and the territory. Just as a map at the scale of 1:1 is utterly useless, a history that includes every available shred of archival evidence is no longer really a history at all. Like the utility of a map, the value of history lies in some degree of strategic abstraction, in the historian’s ability to synthesize and analyze. One could spend a lifetime examining Wright’s archive because it is not just vast but endless—both in the literal sense that new material is still being discovered and because there will always be more references to track down, more connections to index. Historical research may necessitate deep dives into the past, but history is itself built from the materials scholars choose to bring back with them when they resurface.

Of course, even a more strategic selection is no guarantee of success. Elizabeth S. Hawley, an art historian who studies the relationship between American modernism and indigenous cultures of the Southwest, explores Wright’s use of American Indian imagery
in his work through an analysis of the Nakoma Country Club, a golf retreat Wright designed for a group of Madison, Wisconsin, businessmen in 1923. Seemingly inspired by the fact that the building was going to be located in a region once inhabited by the Winnebago Tribe, the architect based his design for the clubhouse on a series of indigenous motifs. Hawley is sharply critical of “Wright’s lack of concern for cultural specificity,” and she convincingly demonstrates that Wright’s understanding of American Indian culture was based on blatant “racial stereotypes.” Among other evidence, she cites the fact that he used the terms wigwam and tepee interchangeably when referring to his inspiration for the tentlike geometry of his building, never mind that the former were produced only by the tribes of the Northeast and Great Lakes and the latter only by those of the Great Plains.

From a contemporary perspective, Wright’s references to American Indians are unquestionably problematic. They are not, however, “surprisingly clichéd,” as Hawley somewhat breathlessly claims in her opening paragraph. In fact, over the course of her essay, Hawley herself seems to cast this ignorance and insensitivity as almost inevitable. Wright’s clients shared his penchant for fetishizing native cultures with an enthusiasm that today seems downright racist: “By the time Wright presented his plans to the Nakoma members, they had already termed the club property the Reservation, dubbed the area awaiting the clubhouse Wigwam Hill, and given names like Many Scalps, Big Smoke, and Eaglefeather to the various golf greens.” Indeed, such attitudes were widespread in the early twentieth century, and Hawley argues that Wright was a man of his time: “Living in Chicago at the turn of the century certainly exposed him to popular conceptions of Indian-ness,” she writes, including Buffalo Bill’s infamous Wild West show, which came to town during the 1893 World’s Fair. It is disappointing to follow Hawley deep into Wright’s archive only to have her report that he shared the general biases of his day; there is also something slightly disingenuous about leveraging archival material to emphasize the gap between past and present, only to feign surprise at the span of the resulting chasm. Worst of all is that this argument robs the archival artifacts of their materiality, their thickness and vitality, turning them into little more than a symptom of the zeitgeist.

Architectural historian Mabel O. Wilson addresses similarly difficult subject matter in her exploration of another little-known project, Wright’s unrealized 1928 design for a Rosenwald school in Virginia—a facility for African American children sponsored by Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck & Company, who had underwritten the construction of thousands of such schools across the rural South. On the surface, it seems that Wright approached this project with an even more egregious insensitivity than he had shown in Madison. Wilson quotes correspondence with one of his clients that makes the contemporary reader cringe: Writing that he has been inspired by the “colorful, joyful spirit of the negro,” Wright uses a slur to describe the children who he wishes will find something “of their own lively interior color and charm” in his building. Yet when it came to expressing himself architecturally, Wright seemed to take a more nuanced view. He was sharply critical of the austere, New England schoolhouse–style buildings that had become typical of Rosenwald’s program, dismissing them as “the ‘extreme’ of timidity and sterility.” He proposed a complete reinvention of the type—from the geometry of the plan to the material of the facade. His design incorporated many innovative ideas—including outdoor play spaces and enhanced natural lighting in the classrooms—that he had tested in educational projects for wealthy white clients. Ultimately, the building was deemed too innovative, with one of Rosenwald’s representatives writing to the architect that “I do not think the plans for beautifying the Rosenwald building will please any of us” and calling his design a “misfit” for the institution’s agenda. As Wilson points out, this chilling response is in keeping with the rigid program of the Rosenwald schools, which emphasized hard work, discipline, and manual labor and was already drawing criticism for pandering to racists and segregationists despite its ostensibly progressive mission. Wilson’s essay reminds us that architecture can never be neutral; on some level, it always embodies power. Yet this embodiment is never a direct translation, as she suggests by probing the specific physical and spatial character of Wright’s design and exploring the complex reasons for the project’s failure. Buildings take their places in the world not through the sheer force of the architect’s will but as a result of intricate negotiations between competing attitudes and beliefs—collisions between cultural values, political disputes, and economic necessities. And ultimately the archive is our best hope for untangling these webs, because it’s there that architecture exists alongside so many other forms of material evidence.

Indeed, the distance between Wright’s words and his work, as revealed by Wilson’s analysis, attests that architecture is a form of cultural discourse, a medium for thinking about the world and, especially, about how we live in it. Particularly in the hands of a master like Wright, it may be a more effective means of addressing those social and political questions that are inevitably also spatial and are implicated in (if never reducible to) modes of interaction and inhabitation. Buildings are dynamic things, not static objects. A look through Wright’s archive reminds us that some will exist only in our imaginations, some will be lived in exactly as they were first designed, and others will be destroyed or altered beyond recognition. Archival research, at its best, does not seek to equate architecture with other forms of discourse any more than it seeks to fully reveal the past. Rather, it brings buildings to life by placing them in dialogue with other cultural artifacts and other kinds of thought. In a sense, history itself is like architecture: We must build it from the materials we have at hand, and we inevitably inhabit it in an ongoing state of renovation and reconstruction.

Julian Rose is a senior editor of Artforum.