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Saturday, May 16, 2009

From Within Outward

Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward opened yesterday at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The exhibition marks the New York institution's 50th anniversary and runs until August 23. The exhibition follows last year's completion of the building's three-year restoration and is the first on the architect of this scope in a building of his design. This fact is much less impressive than the assertion from Phil Allsop of the Frank Lloyd Foundation that the approximately 200 drawings on 64 projects displayed is less than 1% of the Foundation's holdings. Similarly scaled exhibitions could be held once a year until 2120!

FLLW: From Within Outward
[Outside the Guggenheim | photo by archidose]

Unveiled last year after repairs to the concrete and a fresh coat of paint, the exterior's current, like-new appearance is an important element in the 50-year-anniversary exhibition, one that sets the stage for one's appreciation of Wright's work. To have the building under scaffolding would distract from a formal appreciation of his buildings, making one think instead about the stories of leaky roofs and other critiques. Instead the visitor is greeted by a gleaming object across from Central Park, as if Wright's thinking is as fresh today as it was 50 years ago.

FLLW: From Within Outward
[At the bottom of the atrium before Thomas Krens et al took the mic | photo by archidose]

Unlike many exhibitions that have occupied the still controversial spiral ramp (controversial for curators and artists faced with mounting works on sloped and curved floors and walls), From Within Outward does not make itself noticeable from below. It preserves the atrium, its solid guardrails, triangular light covers and creamy white paint as a space of architecture, free of art. Only people activate the space of the atrium and ramp, minus Wright's Hillside Theater Curtain from Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, a colorful hanging visible directly opposite the main entrance. Strategically placed in the two-story High Gallery, the curtain draws one up the ramp and the beginning of the exhibition, a reversal of the typical Guggenheim route via an elevator trip to the top and a leisurely stroll down the ramp. Climbing the ramp one moves forward in time, from the 1904 Larkin Building in Buffalo to the Guggenheim itself, modestly located at the ramp's climax.

FLLW: From Within Outward
[Hillside Theater Curtain (1952) from Taliesin | photo by archidose]

More modesty was exhibited in Thomas Krens's brief introduction during a press preview on Thursday. The former director of the Guggenheim, and co-curator of From Within Outward (with David van der Leer and Maria Nicanor), used superlatives like "brilliant" and "superb," calling the less-than-1% Foundation drawings in the show the "200 best." Superb was his description for the second and fifth floor galleries in the 1992 annex by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates. These two galleries respectively house some of Wright's domestic designs and his urban projects. Both are rendered in dark paint on the walls, accessible via corridors that draw one into the galleries via subdued lighting and highlighted imagery on the walls.

FLLW: From Within Outward
[Left: 2nd floor gallery entrance; right: 5th floor gallery entrance | photos by archidose]

Most of the second floor gallery is occupied by custom vitrines which house Wright's drawings, be they renderings or working drawings. Difficulty in viewing the drawings arises from the vitrines being positioned end-to-end and back-to-back down the center of the room, their orientation level to the floor (unlike others on the spiral ramp placed at an angle, described later) and the glass surface on top. This means that people must crowd at the edge of the table to get a good look at Wright's signature illustrations, surely to be problematic with the anticipated large crowds.

FLLW: From Within Outward
[2nd floor gallery | photo by archidose]

The fifth floor gallery is a bit looser than the second floor, though it follows the same formula of vitrines in the center, with more renderings, models and multimedia at the perimeter. On the upper level the vitrines are arranged in smaller groups, allowing the drawings to be viewed more easily and from more angles, a condition aided by the different sizes and the stepped perimeters of the vitrines. The fifth floor space jibes with Krens's assertion that the show is "light," or not overdone. Many, many more Wright drawings could fill the ramps and annex galleries, but the curators opted to allow some breathing room in the different spaces, heightening the impact of the individual pieces as artifacts.

FLLW: From Within Outward
[5th floor gallery | photo by archidose]

The second type of vitrine, in addition to the tabletop variety in the annex galleries, are slanted ones located on the spiral ramp, the Guggenheim's pièce de résistance. These display pieces, what Krens called brilliant, accomplish a few things: they refer to the drafting tables used in Wright's day, they negotiate the sloping floor, they reinforce the central space of the atrium in their orientation and, most importantly, they make the drawings easy to look at and therefore appreciate.

FLLW: From Within Outward
[One of the many vitrines on the spiral ramp holding Wright's drawings | photo by archidose]

Individually these vitrines are commendable, well-made and well-detailed, but in combination, peered at across the atrium space (below) they appear haphazard. Oriented to the perpendicular walls of the spiral ramp, the vitrines fail to address the atrium space itself. The curators stayed away from the sloping exterior walls (projecting slides on these surfaces), but in doing so they opted for what are basically objects in space, and they failed to think of these in the larger scheme of Wright's building housing the exhibition.

FLLW: From Within Outward
[More vitrines on the spiral ramp holding Wright's drawings | photo by archidose]

Overshadowing the 200 drawings, slideshows and animations (the last, made by Harvard GSD students, are well-made but displayed on screens too small and badly located to compete with their neighbors) will surely be the newly commissioned models. Most impressive is the exploded version of the Herbert Jacobs House #1, fabricated by Brooklyn's Situ Studio and located in the second floor annex gallery. The various components of the house are held apart in separate layers, suspended with wires and lead weights. It shows the floor plan at bottom, with everything above from radiant flooring and windows to walls and the roof. The choice of Jacobs House is important, for it shows the workings of one of Wright's Usonian houses, one of many completed, but a fraction of what Wright would have liked to see populating the countryside, a la Broadacre City. For what's as close to mass-production as Wright could get, the Usonian house illustrates the superiority of its design over the suburban standards that ended up predominating, at the level of the plan, the spaces and the services provided.

FLLW: From Within Outward
[Exploded model of Herbert Jacobs House #1, 1936-37 | photo by archidose]

The fifth floor gallery includes a model for the Pittsburgh Point Park Civic Center #1, made by Kennedy Fabrications. Engaged and glowing within one of the dark walls, the unbuilt design located glass orbs in an atrium space ringed by circulation. In addition to the spheres housing the sea creatures, aquariums were fitted underneath the ring of circulation. The design illustrates a commonality with many architects, how ideas are tested on various projects. In this case we see a Guggenheim-esque spiral being used for another exhibition space, though in Pittsburgh the space of the atrium is anything but hollow. (Of course artists faced with site-specific installations in the Guggenheim's atrium do their best to fill its void.)

FLLW: From Within Outward
[Detail of model for the Pittsburgh Point Park Civic Center #1, 1947 | photo by archidose]

Another spiral project is the unbuilt Gordon Strong Automobile Objective and Planetarium, where an exterior ramp is an extension of the surrounding roadways, as if the building exists to be driven on and around. The Situ Studio model cuts a wedge from the wedding cake, revealing the surprise inside, a hemisphere recreating the night sky. One need only think of Polshek Partnership's Hayden Planetarium alongside Wright's design to see the sharp change in the representation of the heavens via architectural representation, namely from hidden to exposed.

FLLW: From Within Outward
[Model of Gordon Strong Automobile Objective and Planetarium, 1924-25 | photo by archidose]

Models also include, among others, the unbuilt Huntington Hartford Sports Club/Play Resort:

FLLW: From Within Outward
[Model of the Huntington Hartford Sports Club/Play Resort, 1947 | photo by archidose]

And Wright's Plan for Greater Baghdad, both by Situ Studio:

FLLW: From Within Outward
[Model of the Plan for Greater Baghdad, 1957 | photo by archidose]

The last is part of what could be called a mini-exhibit within From Within Outward. His Plan for Greater Baghdad and designs for various buildings in the city are located near the top of the Guggenheim ramp, partitioned off from the atrium by three sloping and kinked walls.

FLLW: From Within Outward
[Looking towards the partitioned "mini-exhibit" for Wright's Baghdad Plan | photo by archidose]

These smaller spaces within the larger atrium/ramp space elevates the importance of Wright's designs for Baghdad, a place whose position in world affairs has obviously changed in the last 50 years. His building designs include landscape elements (green roofs, trellises, etc.) that would be fitting in today's sustainability trend. The models downplay this aspect, but Wright's attempt to turn buildings into landscapes was surely ahead of its time, even when compared to the earth berm architecture from over 30 years ago.

FLLW: From Within Outward
[Inside the partitioned "mini-exhibit" for Wright's Baghdad Plan | photo by archidose]

So what does all of this add up to? What does the exhibition say about Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture, his career, his drawings? If anything it celebrates these, just as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Guggenheim (also the year of Wright's death; he did not live to see it open). The show also brings Wright's designs into the contemporary via the newly commissioned models and the choice of exhibiting unbuilt projects that many people will be seeing for the first time. The curators have created a surprisingly fresh exhibition on an architect gone for half a century. It is not without its faults (mentioned above, namely certain formal decisions on displaying drawings), but overall it is a commendable exhibition that rewards the extended gaze, those willing to soak in drawings by Wright's hand and the animations and models that cast a new light on what could have been.

3 comments:

  1. Great reporting. Going to try and hit the joint up for donate-what-you-want Fridays ($5 sounds right).

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dave - I thought there was some Friday evening deal at the Guggenheim too, but their web page indicates Pay-What-You-Wish on Saturdays from 5:15pm to 7:45pm. FYI.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you for such a thorough post. I would love to attend the exhibition but can't make the trip. Great work!

    -Lucas Gray
    www.talkitect.com

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