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New Perspectives on Frank Lloyd Wright

Popular publications about architectural history tend to focus on a few male architects who designed big buildings and who possessed equally big egos. Their names are familiar to most members of the general public because their work was so well documented and their lives so well chronicled. They are variously represented as heroic, flamboyant, eccentric, obsessive. If asked to identify just one famous architect, most Americans will utter three names in rapid sequence: Frank. Lloyd. Wright.  Indeed, no architect has captured the imagination of both scholars and the general public like this prolific man who produced hundreds of built works and more than a thousand designs during a career that spanned nearly 75 years in practice.

Frank Lloyd Wright during construction of the Guggenheim Museum
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Without question, Wright, along with those who worked in his offices, produced extraordinary and unforgettable buildings: Fallingwater, the Guggenheim Museum, his Prairie School houses, and his Usonian houses, to name just a few of his remarkable achievements. That he also lived a life punctuated with highly visible dramatic episodes makes him the perfect attraction for authors who have created a veritable cottage industry devoted to publishing books and articles about Wright and his colorful life. The bibliography for his Wikipedia entry alone lists 37 publications, but it’s accurate to say that hundreds now exist. With such an abundance of literature focusing on Wright, it would be easy to imagine that there’s little more to be said about either the man or his works, few meaningful questions yet to be asked. And until very recently, most Wright studies had to be conducted at one of two closely-guarded locations: Wright’s former headquarters in Spring Green, Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona.  The location and circumstances of access meant that Wright studies have been, at least to some extent, circumscribed—their scope and focus limited by the contexts in which the documents and artifacts of Wright’s career were situated. 

Sketch of the Robie House
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

All that changed in September 2012, when the New York Times announced that the entire Wright archive—all 23,000 drawings, 44,000 photographs, 600 manuscripts, 300,000 pieces of correspondence, and 40 architectural models—would be moved to Manhattan. The models are now housed at the Museum of Modern Art; Columbia University’s renowned Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library has become the new and very appropriate home for the rest of the collection.  The move makes possible significantly increased levels of accessibility to these primary sources. That new openness is sure to draw scholars bringing fresh and important new questions about Wright, his career, and his significance for his own time, as well as for our own.

Sketch of Falling Water
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

But how does Wright matter now? How can a man who practiced and built many of his greatest works during the first sixty years of the twentieth century still have relevance today? This November during the Chicago Humanities Festival, I’ll be moderating a conversation with Museum of Modern Art curator Barry Bergdoll and renowned Chicago architect Jeanne Gang to find out the answers to those questions, and more. 

Jeanne Gang: A Future Built with Bits and Sticks - Chicago Humanities Festival
Jeanne Gang next to a sketch of her studio's award-winning Aqua Tower

As one of the most exciting and innovative architects of our time, Jeanne Gang draws influences from a multitude of sources, yet she maintains a practice in the heart of Wright country, surrounded by his buildings and by the works of other architects who followed his example. Wright’s influence, whatever it may be, is surely inescapable. As Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, Barry Bergdoll deeply understands the implications of finally bringing Wright’s work into a new context—one in which the drawings and models will be situated within close proximity to those created by his international peers, and within much easier reach of top scholars from around the world, of the students who study art and architectural history at Columbia, and of those who engage in the many stimulating events at Columbia’s Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture (a sponsor of this event, along with the Society of Architectural Historians). 

As this year’s festival focuses on questions about what makes us human, I can’t think of a more appropriate and exciting conversation in which to engage than one including an architect and a museum curator who will together help us consider the ways two incredibly talented architects—one from the past, one practicing today—shape our sense of who we are, and what it means to dwell on this planet.

By Dianne Harris Director, Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


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