NEW YORK >> It’s been 150 years since the birth of America’s best-known architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. But his innovative designs continue to fascinate the public, from New York’s Guggenheim museum, where the circular building itself is a sculptural work of art, to the Fallingwater house built over a waterfall in the Pennsylvania woods, to his modernist home on the Wisconsin prairie, Taliesin, which served as a laboratory for his ideas.
Some of Wright’s buildings, now historic sites, marked his birthday milestone June 8 with parties and $1.50 tours. Other exhibits and events are being offered into the summer and fall, including a major show opening Monday at New York’s Museum of Modern Art called “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive.” The exhibition, which runs through Oct. 1, showcases Wright’s drawings, 3-D models, furniture and other material from an archive the museum jointly owns with Columbia University.
One of the remarkable things about Wright’s enduring legacy is how popular his buildings remain as pilgrimage sites for his fans. In all, about 380 Wright structures are still standing, and those that are open to the public often sell out their tours weeks in advance, even in relatively out-of-the-way places like Taliesin, in rural Spring Green, Wis., and at the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Okla., at 19 stories tall the only skyscraper Wright ever built.
Wright is “the only architect more popular with the general public than he is with practicing architects,” said Barry Bergdoll, MOMA’s architecture curator.
Jeffrey Chusid, a professor at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning, agreed, saying Wright “was always doing what he wanted in his own style, and that style was often more accessible to popular taste than it was to academic taste.” For example, the MOMA show explores Wright’s frequent use of color, pattern and ornamentation, which Chusid said “essentially marked him as a 19th-century architect,” putting him at odds with the stripped-down minimalism generally associated with modernism.
The MOMA exhibition also demonstrates Wright’s adept use of publicity to enhance his reputation. Displays include Wright’s photo on the cover of Time magazine in 1938 and videos of his 1950s TV appearances, including the “What’s My Line?” game show where blindfolded celebrity contestants guessed Wright’s identity by asking questions.
Wright’s sensational personal life contributed to his notoriety. He was married three times, and his longtime mistress was murdered at Taliesin by a house employee who also killed six others and set fire to the house.
But a large part of Wright’s appeal also seems rooted in the notion that he was an arrogant genius who wouldn’t be dissuaded from the purity of his philosophy. According to one much-told tale, when a client complained that a Wright-built roof was leaking on his desk, Wright retorted, “Move the desk!”
Those famous leaking roofs are among many structural problems that make Wright’s buildings challenging to preserve, Chusid said. Wright would build “things that a moment’s thought would have suggested would never work,” he added. “But the thing is he also was making architecture and spaces and buildings that were passionate and astonishing to experience.” He earned his fame not only as “the dramatic figure with the cowboy image, the lone architect against the world, but it was the fact that he created such fantastic buildings so often.”
In addition to Taliesin, the Guggenheim and Price Tower, other Wright sites worth a visit include Kentuck Knob, in Chalkhill, Pa.; the Duncan House, Acme, Pa.; the Stockman House and Park Inn, Mason City, Iowa; and the SC Johnson Co. site in Racine, Wis., known for tree-shaped columns supporting the structure’s Great Workroom, and a research tower with windows made from 7,000 glass tubes. The Zimmerman House, in Manchester, N.H., is an example of Wright’s modest Usonian homes and the only Wright house open to the public in New England. Oak Park, Ill., has the largest concentration of Wright buildings in the world, including his home and studio, according to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy lists all public Wright sites on its website along with the 150th events. Exhibitions on view this summer include “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Journey to the Prairie” exhibition at the Price Tower, through Aug. 27, and “Buildings for the Prairie” at the Milwaukee Art Museum, July 28-Oct. 15. And the National Trust for Historic Preservation in partnership with the geographic mapping company ESRI has launched a digital story map of Wright buildings.
Wright’s knack for publicity and egocentric insistence on the rectitude of his philosophy and designs all contributed to the staying power of his larger-than-life reputation. But ultimately, it’s the buildings themselves that prove irresistible — and not just because “the technical details were way ahead of their time,” said Joel Hoglund of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.
“There’s this intangible thing when you’re in one of his buildings that you’re in the middle of something special,” he said. “People come from all over the world to experience that because there’s not a lot of architecture that gives people that feeling.”