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Monday, July 20, 2009

Book Review: Two Frank Lloyd Wright Titles

Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward by Richard Cleary
Rizzoli, 2009
Hardcover, 360 pages

Frank Lloyd Wright: Essential Texts edited by Robert Twombly
W.W. Norton, 2009
Paperback, 288 pages

This year marks the 50th anniversary of not only the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City but also the passing of its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Commemorating the former is the museum's exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward, on display until August 23. Occupying the signature sloping ramp and a couple annex galleries, the 64 projects, 200 drawings, and numerous models and digital animations celebrate the architect's contributions to architecture in America and beyond.

The accompanying catalog features "a selection of imagery intended to represent some of the projects featured in the exhibition." By aiming to have the catalog for sale to museum-goers on opening day, the catalog suffers from not being able to share images of the specially commissioned models and animations that aimed to present "a fresh approach to Wright's work." It is particularly the models that stay fresh in one's mind after a stroll through the exhibition. They help explain Wright's projects, both built and unbuilt. But it is the latter, the unbuilt projects found in the exhibition and the pages of the catalog, that make up for this deficiency in imagery. With so many books focusing on Wright's residential architecture and iconic buildings like the still influential Guggenheim, the inclusion of projects like the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective and Planetarium (1925) and the Pittsburgh Point Park Civic Center (1947) is refreshing to say the least.

The catalog's essays and plates are insightful and generous, clearly geared to those not steeped in Wright. And while there is still much to be gleaned (Neil Levin's essay on the architect's quadruple block plan is especially rewarding), the documentation of the projects has room for improvement. In particular, dates of individual drawings are not indicated, so with the four schemes for the Guggenheim that make up one spread it is not clear which came first and when. For the academic this makes the book incomplete, but for the armchair enthusiast there is much eye candy to behold and even more to be learned about last century's greatest architect.

For those desiring an understanding of the architect and his intentions, the kind that only comes from primary texts, the well-timed Essential Texts edited by Robert Twombly is a great place to start. Certainly other multi-volume books collect the complete writings of Wright, but Twombly aims to provide a condensed selection of his most enduring and influential writings. Spanning nearly 50 years the essays and transcripts are diverse in subject -- Louis Sullivan, Japanese prints, the machine, nature, his own buildings, critical rants -- but infused with Wright's consistent confidence, arrogance and meandering voice that makes the words on paper read like a journey through the architect's mind. For this reviewer the texts are far from readable, as is contended, with a certain anachronistic style (in early texts more than later ones) distancing Wright's language from today but also requiring a patience from the reader to distill the main ideas. But it is worth it, particularly for students and historians, to spend time with these essays one at a time. This book should not be tackled cover to cover, though the chronological order does give a progression to the evolution of Wright's thinking throughout much of his career. Twombly's introductory notes to each essay are particularly helpful, though the limited illustrations point to a book like the recent catalog above as a fitting companion to the architect's words.

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