As you may have heard recently, the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, for those with too much work to know) recently partnered with Columbia’s own Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library to acquire many of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s collections, manuscripts, and designs. Avery and MoMA decided to become friends and team up to display these recently obtained works in a new exhibition called “Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal.” In case you can’t make it down to the museum between now and June 1st when the exhibit closes, here’s Max Rettig’s sneak peek into some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most significant contributions to modern civilization.
When you walk into the exhibit on MoMA’s third floor, the first thing you see is a massive, floor-to-ceiling window portrait of Wright standing with his plans for and a large-scale model of the San Francisco Call Building. Wright designed the San Francisco Call Building as one of the first modern-style skyscrapers, reaching 24 cantilevered stories and using reinforced concrete piers to support the building, allowing each floor to be used as free interior space. This design was crucial for the tower’s main tenant, the San Francisco Call newspaper, and the open floor design is often used today in the offices of newspapers, magazines, and many other companies.
In many of Wright’s designs, he utilizes the same or similar architectural ideas, most of which were groundbreaking for his time. Wright prophesied the modern skyscraper by thinking up the glass facades and curtain walls seen in the brand new One World Trade Center and countless other newer buildings. Wright loved the use of the cantilever (anchoring a beam to a structure on only one side, giving the structure a floating appearance), as seen in his designs for the St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie Towers, intended for Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Many of the architectural features Wright pioneered in his designs for the St. Mark’s Towers are also seen today in luxurious apartment high-rises: double-height rooms, expansive windows to allow for natural light, and a central building core (often reinforced concrete). Although these specific plans were never realized due to the stock market crash in 1929, they became the precedent for many of Wright’s later buildings, and many of today’s buildings as well.
Along with designs for buildings, Wright drew up plans for urban improvement and layout. Among these were his 1-block elevation plan for New York City, in which he placed skyscrapers on either side of the block, leaving the middle for low-rise buildings, a central parking garage doubly serving as a green space, and a raised pedestrian walkway sort of like the High Line. In addition, he used the design for his St. Mark’s Towers to plan a block-long tower development in Chicago, in which each tower was linked to the other by ground-level passageways. He also set the precedent for modern zoning laws by designing the larger buildings to be set back from the street. All of these ideas are in application in much of today’s architecture. However, these more basic plans do not really compare to the focal point of the exhibit and perhaps Wright’s biggest project: Broadacre City.
Laid out in a massive square, Wright designed Broadacre City to encapsulate his visions and ideas of the ideal city: spread out, surrounded by nature, and accessible by car and other modes of transportation. Wright designed the city to allow each of its citizens a specific piece of land to own and farm, trying to provide certainty during the uncertainty of the Great Depression. Wright included high-rise towers as well, but these were seldom and spaced up to a mile apart, confirming Wright’s belief in dispersal over density. Wright wanted cities to stretch wide and far into the horizon rather than through the clouds. Taking advantage of new technology like the car, he designed what many consider to be the first highway interchange through a city. However, as large in land area as some are, cities like New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles can only expand so far out before they have to expand upwards, and so modern-day city centers are antithetical to Wright’s vision of the city.
Wright pioneered many other design ideas, namely the internal grand lobby in Dallas’ Rogers Lacy Hotel, the appearance of a lit, floating core in his S.C. Johnson headquarters, and rooftop gardens for revitalization. Wright prophesized the race for height by designing a mile-high tower to be placed in Chicago, supported by a core driven far into the ground, held up by steel support cables, and traversed via nuclear-powered elevators. While the idea of a mile-high tower is hard to comprehend, let alone design and build, it can be seen as another architectural precedent set forth by Wright, and some of today’s buildings are inching towards that mile-high mark. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai stands 2,700 feet, so we’re already more than halfway there.
While Frank Lloyd Wright made clear his distaste for tightly-packed skyscrapers, as evidenced by Broadacre City (he also very much disliked the idea of concentrating space for financial gain, as many skyscrapers do), he did understand that allowing buildings to reach into the clouds would free up a lot of space on the ground for nature to exist. Wright’s architecture was a balancing act of vertical reach and horizontal extremity.
Of course, Wright designed more than tall buildings and city layouts. Fallingwater might be his most famous creation of all, and he has many other notable design credits dispersed throughout the world. As Bwog realized through this exhibit, Wright’s designs influenced a great many of the buildings standing today. Don’t be surprised if your freshman residence hall was designed with one of Wright’s concepts in mind (or Lerner, or NoCo, or any other building). The man has quite the influence, and Bwog is insanely jealous of his talent.
Frank Lloyd Wright (American, 1867–1959). Broadacre City. Project, 1934–35. Model: painted wood, 152 x 152” (386.1 x 386.1 cm). The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)