What Might Have Been: Frank Lloyd Wright's Strange Urban Vision at MoMA [VIDEO]

MoMA’s newest architecture exhibition, “Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal,” on view through June 1, is meant as a celebration. The Museum and Columbia University’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library jointly acquired the great architect’s personal archive from his studio at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2012, and they will spend the next several years processing and preserving its contents. Jointly organized by Barry Bergdoll, Acting Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at Moma and Chair of Columbia University's Art History department, and Carole Ann Fabian, Director of Avery Library, the archive's acquisition and display represent a continued partnership between the two institutions. The one-room show in the museum’s third-floor architecture and design galleries announces the compendium’s permanent home in New York and offers a foretaste of things to come: MoMA has a massive Wright archive retrospective in the works, planned to open in 2017.

But despite its celebratory premise, “Density vs. Dispersal” takes on a somber tone once visitors begin to focus on the objects on display, rather than their mere presence. This is a show about utopian American urbanism, staged at a moment when cities across the country are flailing and in some cases failing. Even in an economically robust city like New York, income inequality is at an all-time high, housing stock is more expensive than ever, and homelessness rates are soaring. Detroit, meanwhile, is trying to work out its bankruptcy settlement, while Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey, struggle to maintain the rule of law.

 

The drawings, photographs, and architectural models on view in “Density vs. Dispersal” offer a refreshing alternative vision to the constellations of crowded urban centers and surrounding suburban sprawl that cover much of America’s landscape today. Wright believed that technological innovation had rendered centralized city living obsolete. He aspired to build an entirely new urban fabric, decentralized and horizontal, based on a rigid square grid that residents would navigate by car.

Wright had a love-hate relationship with density; he despised New York City, deeming it “congested” and unhealthy. At the same time, he was obsessed with the skyscraper, designing towers that pushed technological innovations in building design and construction from 1913 until his death in 1959. Wright was fascinated by skyscrapers’ vertical orientation, but felt they should stand in glorious isolation from one another. In some cases, this show seems to suggest, he may have been more interested in them as iconic objects than as integrated elements of the urban landscape. Large-scale models of his proposed 1913 San Francisco Call Building and his 1952-56 H.C. Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for example, show the buildings removed from surrounding context. Their facades accentuate the models’ verticality, so that the repeating piers of the miniature Call Building make it seem even taller than its already-impressive six feet.

Still, drawings and photographs of Wright’s unrealized 1931 St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie tower and his 1950 research laboratory for S.C. Johnson do include the neighboring landscape, showing that the architect was also concerned with a skyscraper’s surroundings. So concerned, in fact, that he developed the Skyscraper Regulation plan in 1926, a set of zoning rules governing the height and placement of tall buildings to optimize their access to light and views, as a reaction against the unregulated building boom that refashioned New York and Chicago into megalopolises during 1920s.

His conviction that skyscrapers should be spaced far apart — and the refusal of real estate developers and architects to agree with him — ultimately drove him to abandon work on existing cities in the early 1930s. Thereafter, he worked on reinventing rather than reforming cities, devoting himself, from the mid-1930s until his death, to developing Broadacre City, a model planned community that he imagined could be adapted to almost any part of the American landscape, but that was never built.

Wright’s model of Broadacre City is the single most impressive object in “Density vs. Dispersal.” Built of plywood in 1934 and ’35 by students at Taliesin West, the 12-foot-by-12-foot maquette sprawls across the small gallery in much the same way that Wright hoped Broadacre City would extend over American terrain. Based on a decentralized plan in which citizens would each be given one acre of farmland on a rectilinear grid, Broadacre City also included allotments for small-scale manufacturing, infrastructure, and parkland interspersed among the homesteads. Seven iterations of the unrealized St. Mark’s Tower from 1931 also appear in the Broadacre model, along a river and next to farmsteads, illustrating his ideal vision for the skyscraper. These towers, dispersed throughout the community at irregular intervals but always at a distance from one another, would have access to light and landscape views.

The name “Density vs. Dispersal” has a poetic ring to it, but it may not be completely accurate. The exhibition, and particularly the model of Broadacre City, suggests that the two urban visions were never in competition for Wright, who seems to have been categorically opposed to density and adamantly in favor of its opposite. Clearly, if urban America had developed according to Wright’s plans, it would have plenty of woes today. Many urbanists and Wright scholars agree that Broadacre City would have ended up resembling the contemporary suburb in its sprawl, its isolation of car-bound individuals, and its paucity of public space. And the dream of the lone skyscraper is reminiscent of those tower-in-the-park housing projects that led to to so many problems in the 20th century. Wright was only one of many great utopian figures who failed to grasp a basic facet of human nature, that people often crave company and like to congregate.

But if his vision, however flawed, had been fully realized, it might have made possible different forms  of urban life, economic interaction, and political organization than those available to most Americans today. At the very least, contemplating his schemes gets you thinking in fresh ways about what ails our cities. When MoMA’s hoards of tourists and regulars go home to their suburbs or towers and townhouses, they’ll remember more than pretty pictures. Visitors to “Density vs. Dispersal” have ample reason to reflect on the built environment, as it is today or never was — and to return for even more Wright come 2017.