After a cross-country journey through the American heartland where many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic houses still stand, the vast archives of the towering American architect have arrived in New York City.
In the 18 months since Columbia’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library and the Museum of Modern Art jointly acquired the archives from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation for their permanent collections, Avery has gained enough insight into the works to help mount the first exhibition, \"Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal.\" The exhibition opened at MoMA in February and runs through June 1.
Organizing an exhibition so soon after the acquisition was “a tall order,” according to Barry Bergdoll, Columbia’s Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History and Archaeology and MoMA’s curator of Architecture and Design. Bergdoll, who suggested the theme of the show, said it fulfills Avery’s mission of reconnecting Wright historically “to issues still relevant today that were core to his work—urban design, sprawl vs. non-sprawl, structured decentralization.”
Avery director Carole Ann Fabian, curator Janet Parks, Bergdoll and library staff worked closely with the team at Taliesin West—Wright’s former home, studio and architectural campus in Scottsdale, Arizona—to inventory, pack and crate the collection.
Avery had to prepare its vault to receive, store and integrate the paper-based portion of the archive—more than 27,000 drawings, 45,000 photographs, 300,000 letters and other documents, and 2,400 manuscripts as well as audio files and films. While Columbia’s expert archivists manage the large trove in Avery’s vault, MoMA—where all 3-dimensional works are housed—will be where members of the general public will have the chance to see the works up close.
By March 2013, two tractor trailers were on their way to New York—a “hair-raising journey,” said Bergdoll, since the invaluable material arrived in the city during its recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Because Avery’s loading dock was not able to accept such large shipments all at once, fine art storage firms handled the shipments and then, with military precision, made smaller deliveries of three crates at a time to Avery every fourth day for four months.
Next came the sheet-by-sheet, box-by-box (more than a thousand in all) surveying, inventorying and processing of the materials into an array of custom shelving and flat files made for the variety and sizes of all the pieces. Avery opened part of the archives—the drawings and the correspondence—for onsite research last fall, more than a year ahead of schedule. The photographs and other materials will be available to scholars in the near future.
“Any great archive gives a portrait of its subject, and Wright the man as well as the architect emerges from his archives,” said Parks. “You can see he’s having a conversation with himself through the years as he worked out, tested and revisited ideas and designs.”
Wright is also having conversations with others, as in a 1932 letter to the eminent architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, bristling with indignation after Hitchcock declared that Wright and his architecture were on the decline. “But my dear Russell Hitchcock,” Wright wrote, “you read so much you must read rapidly … May I correct some mistakes?” He then proceeds to refute Hitchcock point by point—17 in all—over three pages.
Fabian said the depth of the material—everything from exquisitely executed drawings to reels of film that show a surprising number of women students at Taliesin for the 1930s and photos of Wright with his mane of white hair—will be fodder for generations of Wright scholars.
“There are Wright buildings that were never built, and Wright buildings that have been lost to us because of destruction for one reason or another,” she said. “The living evidence of that work is the archival documentation—the drawings, the correspondence, the photographs of the work as it’s being imagined, designed, built and lived in.”
In just the first few months that the material has been available, Avery has welcomed researchers from around the world, students new to the field of Wright studies and Columbia undergraduates from a fall 2013 seminar that Bergdoll taught, “Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier: City and Nature.” Bergdoll’s students examined the original works in the archive and their new research was incorporated into the MoMA exhibit’s gallery notes.
The centerpiece of the first exhibition is a 12-by-12-foot model for Broadacre City, Wright’s comprehensive plan created in the mid-1930s for the urbanization of the American landscape. Like the other pieces in the exhibition, it shows that Wright didn’t just design buildings. “He also thought deeply about housing, transportation, agriculture, community, and the economics and politics of social structures,” said Fabian. “He was a visionary who designed for the entire fabric of society.”
—Story by Eve Glasberg
—Video by Columbia News Video Team