Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward

Special exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum through August 23.

Growing up in Florida, I visited Florida Southern College on numerous occasions—for church events, for music camp, to see the name of my grandmother, valedictorian of the class of 1952, immortalized on a kind of Sidewalk of Honor (I love you, Grandma!)—so I spent a good deal of time wandering around the campus Frank Lloyd Wright designed, the largest collection of his work in the world. This could have been a charming story if I’d appreciated that work, but in fact, I hated it. I considered the long, flat buildings and especially the unnervingly low-ceilinged esplanades to be squat and oppressive, and the sharp angles and red glass of the chapel felt angry and disquieting.

Later, my brother pointed out that the graceful white building that serves as the site for Ophelia’s mad scene in Michael Almereyda’s modern-day Hamlet (intriguing but clumsy, by the way) is the Guggenheim, also designed by Wright, which just confused me. How could the same architect have designed both the menacing slab buildings of the college campus and the pure, soaring spiral of the museum? Frankly, even now that I know more about Wright than I did as a child, I find it difficult to reconcile my wildly mixed feelings about his work.

It helps to know that Wright’s oeuvre is, in fact, known for its diversity and that many of his buildings are meant to integrate themselves with their specific natural surroundings. In my mind, this means that the college buildings are squat and oppressive because the Central Florida landscape is squat and oppressive. I know Wright would probably object to this assessment, but it makes sense to me. For other parts of the world—wooded valleys, majestic canyons, lush riverbanks—Wright designed buildings with more height and less concrete, many of which I find very appealing.

One of the more enchanting aspects of Wright’s design (in, you know, those buildings I don’t hate) is his creative use of natural light, part of larger efforts to create buildings that promote tranquility and union with the environment. The enormous skylight at the Guggenheim, for example, lets in a miraculous amount of diffuse light, beautifully compensating for the fact that they are no conventional windows in the building’s central spiral.

Unfortunately, though, the Guggenheim’s exhibit on Wright grants little chance to appreciate that real-world effect of other buildings’ architecture. The exhibit consists almost exclusively of original models, blueprints, and elevation drawings. For Wright’s unbuilt projects (the extraordinarily ambitious Plan for Greater Baghdad, for one), there’s obviously nothing else to show, but in the case of completed work, the seemingly pointed refusal to provide photographs drove me crazy.

Maybe the curators felt that such photographs—“secondary” demonstrations of Wright’s work—would distract inappropriately from the primary source material, but if that was the motivation, I find it tremendously misguided. I can sight-read music relatively well, so I can look at a score—“primary” material—and imagine what it’s supposed to sound like, but I would never consider that a substitute for actually hearing a work performed, even imperfectly or on recording, even if the score provided was an “original.” Architecture is like music in that what the architect/composer physically creates (the blueprint/score) is actually not the true work of art. The art must be created by others: the builders and the performers.

Photographs, of course, provide an incomplete picture, but paired with the models and all that, I think it could have worked. Without photos, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated as I stared at the drawings, trying to imagine what the buildings must look like in person, what the rooms must look like from inside. The exhibit’s literature emphasizes Wright’s concentration on interiors (the very name of the exhibit references just that), yet the exhibit provides little opportunity to truly grasp that.

In short, From Within Outward is an oddly academic, unapproachable look at an architect who worked so hard to make his buildings approachable—by promoting space for collaboration among coworkers and community among congregants, by adapting proposals to be more affordable for clients with relatively small budgets, by agitating against city planning practices that dehumanized those who live there. (I actually have some issues with Wright’s utopian ideal of decentralized cities—it’s an idea that hasn’t aged well, considering how suburban sprawl has led to all kinds of blowback—but that’s a tangent I don’t wish to pursue here. Regardless of whether Wright’s “Living City” was a good idea, his heart was clearly in the right place.) I visited the Guggenheim hoping to gain a better appreciation for Wright than I had growing up, so it was a real disappointment to find that the anniversary exhibit is no better an ambassador for Wright than Florida Southern.