Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward
Guggenheim Museum, New York
May 15–August 23, 2009
Breaking the box? The outside of the Guggenheim Museum is newly spiffed up, and the interior is agleam, down to tiny details like the fresh planters of philodendrons and the small, squirting, eye-shaped fountain in the lobby that bring reminders of the natural world — the original drawings show a tiny forest of pines and firs curbside, but they never materialized. It’s been fifty years since Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiralled design took shape, amidst scoffing, hostility, and a group letter from prominent artists disdaining the space as suitable for showing paintings. Now the museum’s audio guide informs us the that the Guggenheim is one of Wright’s most beloved works.
There could have bee so many more. Among the saddest facts about life is that the ordinary overtakes the extraordinary. This has been the fate of Wright, as is abundantly made clear in the current exhibit devoted to his visionary, grandiose, futuristic, and largely unrealized projects. If you make the trek to Taliesin West and stand on the edge of the property overlooking a vast expanse of Arizona desert — the name Taliesin is supposedly derive from the Welsh for “shining brow” — what greets your eye today is unbroken suburbia. Phoenix has sprawled around Taliesin like a petri dish spawning bacteria, only in this case every dot isn’t a micro-organism but a bone-white stucco house in fake Spanish style with identical red-tile roofing. On display in every direction is a total absence of Wright homes, a tragic blankness serving as a kind of anti-tribute to America’s greatest domestic architect.
He was too extraordinary for Phoenix, but then, he was too extraordinary for London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, and Beijing, which boast no Wright architecture, and Tokyo, which had a great example in the Imperial Hotel, tore it down. One mustn’t gripe. Architects, like Hollywood screenwriters, survive by being paid for projects that never see the light. The models and drawings on display in this exhibit, many of them loving recreations, are breathtaking enough.
Wright was an organic transcendentalist. He believed that buildings had to relate to Nature, and like Emerson, he saw Nature as the cradle of the burgeoning spirit. If America had built everything Wright wanted, we would have turned into a different America. How strange that his ambition to give every family a home as graceful, welcoming, and safe as a meadow in spring should endure through one domestic invention he was the first to devise — the carport — which turned into a cliché and an eyesore.
Speaking to a group of young New York architects when he was around 90, Wright made his principles as succinct as possible. He began, he said, by wanting to “beat the box,” and to that end he never erected a simple cube ever again. He saw as necessary a floor below and a sheltering roof above, but walls were optional. His ideal was the “disappearing wall,” open and flowing to the environment. Inside, energy dominated over function, for Wright desired something he called “activated space.” This he never failed to achieve. You cannot enter a Wright creation without feeling that the stage is more alive than the actors. Above all, he was a striver for wholeness. In one of his most touching phrases, Wright proclaimed that “hill and house should live together.”
Gazing at over a dozen unfulfilled projects as you wander down the ramp at the Guggenheim, you see a vast imagination at work. Here is not just our greatest architect but, to me at least, our greatest artist. Ironically, one of his visions was for a rebuilt Baghdad. Wright liked to base buildings on a single geometric shape that permeated every detail the way Beethoven used terse thematic cells (both artists were in love with the trick of beginning with small, mundane strokes that evolved into breathtaking wholes), and as the Guggenheim is a sonata to the circle, Baghdad was to be a paean to the ziggurat, ancient pyramids from the Assyrian and Babylonian cultures that look like wedding cakes whose layers spiral upward. Wright’s chances of recreating the city as a hanging garden were so impossible that even without a military coup in the Fifties, and the resulting degradation of Iraqi society, his paradisal dream would have remained just that.
I never find it inspiring to wander in the graveyard of lost art, and unbuilt architecture is as lost as paintings destroyed by aerial bombardment in World War II. Here, however, I also had to mourn a lost America. Wright was not in essence a futurist. His final phase, full of Atomic Age flying saucers (he envisioned a resort for Huntington Hartford based on saucer shapes cantilevered out over a mountain side, with even the swimming pool suspended in mid air), needle-like skyscrapers pointing a mile high, and frisbee-like pancakes redolent of the Starship Enterprise, still remained true to Wright’s Emersonian values. He was a meliorist of the soul, a believer in the spirit radiating outward into Nature as Nature radiated inward, both merging without break or boundary. The Puritans thought of America as an invisible world made visible; so did he.
Such ideals were still alive when I was a young reader of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, not to mention Lewis Mumford, Alfred Kazin, and Wright himself, whose diminutive but craggy presence was visible on Fifties television (he once appeared with Mike Wallace and was interrupted as Wallace held up a pack of cigareetes for a commercial break. In the background Wright muttered, “If I’d known you were going to have those damned things on, I wouldn’t be here.” Close to that, at least). The whole panoply of optimism and nature worship collapsed after Vietnam, so thoroughly swept away that it’s startling to view Wright’s designs today. They could be posters for flappers, flivvers, and the foxtrot, so dated are they. I wish that the curators had livened the air with the only music that suits Wright’s aesthetic, that of another latter-day Transcendentalist Charles Ives.
To erase this sadness, I turned to the Kandinsky Gallery, a beacon of radiance that the Guggenheim wisely keeps permanently open. Painter and architect are so perfectly aligned that they could be twin stars in their own private constellation. Their use of biomorphic design is thoroughly musical; Wassily Kandinsky’s circles and swirls sing along with Wright’s building in ever-evolving major-key harmonies. In truth the Guggenheim’s collection of early modernist painting since Van Gogh comes off as niggling, consisting of smallish canvases with all the right labels (Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, etc.) but not enough impact. “Typical of the artist” usually comes to mind, with grateful exceptions like Rousseau’s small but delightfully alive ‘Football Players,’ running figures as rounded as dowels or toy horses in a battle scene of Uccello’s. But all is forgiven when confronting the plentiful Kandinskys, with masterpieces from every stage of a marvellous career.
In the end, the nay-sayers were wrong about Wright, but the doom-sayers were right. The box wasn’t beaten. It had miles to go, and is still going, as witness Renzo Piano’s elegant addition to the Morgan Library, an arcane mystical homage to the golden mean or some subsidiary rectangle, and Richard Meier’s Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where the unadorned square reigns supreme. Wright’s vision is carried forward on the biomorphic front by Frank Gehry, but his are biomorphs from a surrealist dream, not from hills, valleys, plains, and trees. Wright is as extinct as the Transcendentalism he espoused. Neither has a life outside the walls of museums, libraries, and classrooms, which is a great shame for a man whose abiding desire was to make walls disappear in the first place.