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New Frank Lloyd Wright Exhibit Opens at MoMA

A blueprint sketch of the facade of the Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo. 1913–23.

Museum Images Courtesy The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum Of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University New York)

A fresh perspective on the work of one of America’s most renowned architects has come to the Museum of Modern Art in an exhibition organized by Barry Bergdoll ’77, GSAS’86, curator of MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design and the Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History and Archaeology.

“Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” was developed in celebration of the anniversary of the architect’s birth — June 8, 1867 — and the acquisition of the Wright archives by MoMA and Columbia’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library. “Unpacking” refers both to the Herculean task of moving thousands of photographs, drawings, letters, models and more from the The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation’s storage facilities in Wisconsin and Arizona, as well as the figurative opening up of Wright’s work for examination and debate. The exhibition will run through October 1.

A portrait of Barry Bergdoll '77, GSAS'86.

Barry Bergdoll ’77, GSAS’86

Robin Holland / Courtesy The Museum Of Modern Art, New York

The archives were acquired jointly by the museum and Columbia in 2012 from the foundation. Bergdoll told CCT that having the archive housed on campus in Avery makes it uniquely available to scholars for teaching and for dissertations, and even for viewing by Columbia humanities students. Contents from the archive are also part of the regular programming of architectural display at MoMA and shown to the public in that way.

One of the conditions of the partnership among the three organizations was committing to develop two Wright exhibitions in a five-year period. Bergdoll says he thinks the foundation imagined the museum would simply display masterpieces from the archives, but he had other ideas.

“Frank Lloyd Wright is probably the best known American architect in history and there have been any number of comprehensive exhibitions,” he says. “A blockbuster show would never announce that this collaboration brings something new to the archive, so we wanted to make the exhibitions into research platforms.”

The first exhibition, “Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal,” displayed at MoMA in 2014, examined the contradictions in Wright’s thinking about the growth of American cities in the 1920s and 1930s, when he was simultaneously creating radical designs for skyscrapers and making models for a suburban utopia he called Broadacre City.

For “Unpacking the Archive,” Bergdoll wanted to try an approach that takes advantage of MoMA’s and Columbia’s ability to address “hard questions and contradictions.” “The new exhibition is not a comprehensive monograph or form of hero worship,” says Bergdoll. “It’s an experiment in research.”

A drawing of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater (Kaufmann House).

Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater (Kaufmann House), Mill Run, Pa. 1934–37.

The exhibition — comprising approximately 450 works made from the 1890s through the 1950s — is divided into 12 sections, with each segment investigating a key object (or cluster of objects) from the archives, unpacked by scholars and one conservator, most of them fresh voices to Wright rather than seasoned specialists. Visitors watch films of the scholars in the actual archive in Avery Library; they can see what an archive looks like and learn how architecture historians do their work. The scholars are not giving lectures; rather, each discusses how they solved a particular research puzzle. The audio for the films (each around five minutes) is not played in headphones, so visitors will hear voices all around them, including Wright’s. While the segments are chronological, the pacing is not directed or overdetermined — “it’s about connections and serendipities,” Bergdoll says.

In September, Columbia’s Lenfest Center for the Arts, on the Manhattanville campus, will present the exhibition “Living in America: Frank Lloyd Wright, Harlem and Modern Housing,” which examines Wright’s housing design in relationship to the rise of modern housing design in Harlem. It will overlap the MoMA exhibit through October and run until December 17.