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MOMA: Unpacking 150 years Frank Lloyd Wright

MOMA in New York finds a distinctive spot in the orbit of art unveilings with a rostrum of shows that pan out into the iconic intensities of world famous artists and designers. After a historic suite of Pablo Picasso's Guitars and Sculptures over the past two years, their magnum opus this time is a celebration of 150 years of Frank Lloyd Wright.
And, 'Unpacking Frank Lloyd Wright at 150 years' is about dipping into archival history to understand an architect for whom diversity and design were skin deep. MOMA has a history of tapping into distinctive archives and creating exhibitions that become the touchstone of history.

The press release gives an insight into the making of such a retrospective that spans decades of cerebral aesthetics and intellectual reflections of one of the greatest architects America ever had. Five years ago, the Modern and Columbia University's Avery Library acquired Wright's enormous archive (55,000 drawings, 125,000 photographs, 300,000 sheets of correspondence, countless telegrams, hours of home movies) from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. To celebrate the acquisition, and Wright's 150th birthday, Barry Bergdoll, longtime curator at the Modern and a Columbia professor, enlisted scholars, mostly not the usual Wright suspects, to mine the trove.

To look at Wright's archival drawings is to understand that his projects were about implying a social ecology of architecture.

At MOMA to see the painstaking drawings that preserve the rich colouring of many important projects hung on the wall is akin to an epiphany. Pen or pencil lines in pristine clarity recovered from the fragile records of Frank Lloyd Wright's revolutionary concepts become subtle shades of iconicity. Faithful, colourful and ample, this splendidly produced show offers an unparalleled close-up of 70 years of Frank Lloyd Wright's organic architecture as it originated in his studio.

Wright was a thinker and writer. "An idea is inevitably a coordination. It is a coming together of something that is separate or disorganised or incomplete. With an idea, you begin to feel into the nature of that incompleteness." He wrote in his essay 'Nature and Idea' on December 30, 1956, that one of his greatest creations was Falling water in Pennsylvania.

In 1936, in a mountainside in Pennsylvania, Falling water was built as a retreat for the family of a Pittsburgh department store owner, it is a voluptuous expression of Wright's organic architecture. The first of his masterpieces, Wright realised the house would need to be bigger than the plot allowed, so he designed around his problems by using specially-designed anchors that would keep the house attached to the nearby grounds.

It melds man-made with natural in an expansive indoor/outdoor flow, with cantileveredterraces built out over a gushing waterfall. This great house of 1936, has powerful cantilevers that borrowed the crispness of European modernism.

In an audacious creation, Wright sent out free-floating platforms over a small waterfall and anchored them in natural rock. It also reflects the International Style in the interlocking geometry of the planes and flat, textureless surface of the main shelves. The house is fused to mountain terrain both within and without- the rough stone walls and flagged floors bearing an elemental ruggedness. Wright explored the dictums of time and space with a passion.

Houses, offices, synagogues, cities and churches. Everything came off his draughts board with elan and elegance. When he was creating the Unity Temple Church he wrote: Why not, then, build a temple, not to GOD in that way—more sentimental than sense—but build a temple to man, appropriate to his uses as a meeting place, in which to study man himself for his God's sake? A modern meeting-house and good-time place."

Looking deeper at his drawings reveals not just his unshakable optimism, his messianic zeal and a rare pragmatic resilience, Wright was quintessentially American. A central theme that pervades his architecture is a recurrent question in American culture: How do you balance the need for individual privacy with the attraction of community activity?

Wright's reflections express his deeper notions of time and space. "We will never have a culture of our own until we have an architecture of our own. An architecture of our own does not mean something that is ours by the way of our own tastes. It is something that we have knowledge concerning. We will have it only when we know what constitutes a good building and when we know that the good building is not one that hurts the landscape, but is one that makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before that building was built"

Everyone craves periods of solitude, but in Wright's view, a human being develops fully only as a social creature. Good architecture, Wright wrote in a 1908 essay, should promote the democratic ideal of "the highest possible expression of the individual as a unit not inconsistent with a harmonious whole." MOMA gives us pages of history tucked between the tenets of organic architecture, a unity of design, technical innovations pitched betwixt an idealised natural pragmatism.

Critic and essayist Michael Kimmelman of NYT presents an apt epitaph when he writes: "In retrospect, they were city-based but anti-urban projects, divorced from the streets, in thrall to cars. A mass of contradictions, Wright, the inexhaustible genius, was, in these as in so many other projects, a maker and mirror of the American century. His archives should keep scholars busy for at least the rest of the post-American one."
By unpacking Wright at 150 years, MOMA brings 72 years of architecture alive.
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