At MoMA, Unpacking the Frank Lloyd Wright Archive

It must have been akin to untying the Gordian knot:

There’s the sheer size of the collection – 55,000 drawings, 300,000 sheets of correspondence, 125,000 photographs, 2,700 manuscripts – as well as models, films, building fragments, and other materials.

Then there’s the challenge of how to winnow it down to just 400 works for an exhibition to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth in 1867.

But Barry Bergdoll was up to the task. He’d already played a key role in assuring that the collection from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation was transferred to The Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University in 2012. The archive’s two-dimensional items are stored now at Columbia; three-dimensional ones, at MoMA.

But Bergdoll did not curate Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive alone. Instead, he chose to bring in 11 others to interpret the project of their choice.

“In a certain sense, it organized itself through the findings of those researchers,” says Bergdoll, curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at The Museum of Modern Art, and Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University. “So it’s a combination of people who would be new to Wright, not just Frank Lloyd Wright experts – because only two in the exhibit had prior relationships with Wright’s work.”

Among the projects considered is the Guggenheim Museum in New York, including an early model and drawings – one showing a pink-marbled skin and another, cream-colored limestone. “I don’t know who drew them, and they’re such naive drawings – and there’s no Frank Lloyd Wright signature,” he says. “We do know he thought he would clad the building in different materials for a different look – at one point he even thought of gilding it.”

There’s the 1956 drawing of The Illinois, Wright’s proposed mile-high skyscraper. “It’s a hypothetical site in Chicago – a publicity stunt to raise money for Taliesin,” he says. “My hypothesis is that he wanted to get back in the news and get his place back in Chicago, because Mies was establishing himself as the leader of the Second Chicago School.”

And the earthquake-impervious-but-doomed-anyway Imperial Hotel in Tokyo: “It only sustained minor damage in the earthquake of 1922,” he says. “It was demolished in the late 1960s – the site was so valuable that they wanted a bigger hotel there.”

Perhaps the most surprising proposed project for Bergdoll – Wright designed 1,000 buildings during his career, and built about 500 – was his design for the Rosenwald School. “The Rosenwald Foundation had already built several thousand schools and he was proposing a better way of doing it,” he says. “The architecture had been very traditional, and he said it didn’t contribute to the education of children – that he could make it more progressive and make it better for educational development.”

So is this the show to end all Frank Lloyd Wright shows? “The answer is no,” Bergdoll says. “But people can now use the archives for insights into the history of Frank Lloyd Wright and his architecture, plus race, energy, psychology and other things of interest today.”

And will there be more? “For sure, many more shows – MoMA will regularly show Wright and integrate his work into other shows and exhibitions,” he says.

For MoMA, the acquisition of the archives means the museum now has not only one of the greatest collections of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work – but also the archive of Mies van der Rohe.

Pair those two up in an exhibition, and it’s sure to spell blockbuster.

In the meantime, Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive opens on June 12 and runs through Oct. 1. For more, go here.

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All images courtesy of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).