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What might have been

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Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, 8:51 p.m.
 

If you care about architecture, here's an occasion for satisfaction and expectation.

Columbia University and the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York City, announced a week ago that they are going to centralize and preserve in New York the vast archives of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright, who died in 1959, after a design career that spanned seven decades, is not just the guy most often accorded the title of greatest architect of the 20th century. He also was very important to Pittsburgh in several ways.

His most famous residence — and he was as much as anything else a designer of houses — is Fallingwater, the 1930s weekend retreat for Pittsburgh's Kaufmann family. He also designed the nearby Kentuck Knob, a house now open to the public that shows with several exquisite interior spaces his ideas of what a relatively modest-sized house of the 1950s could be.

But what's relatively little known here are the almost fantastical ideas that he conjured for our city in the late 1940s when, under the sponsorship of department-store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann, he revealed grand plans for the city's Point. These included magnificent bridges and a giant-sized megastructure enclosed in a huge circular automobile ramp (think Guggenheim Museum) right where the bridges would meet. This is where Point State Park is now.

This megastructure would have been a civic center housing a sports arena, an opera house, several theaters and a planetarium in addition to stores, offices and parking. The whole idea was hugely impractical – it would have barely connected with the rest of the city – and it was almost certainly unaffordable.

And, though some of the leaders of Pittsburgh's “Renaissance I” traveled more than once to Wright's studios to see the ideas in progress, the finished plan was widely dissed and quickly dismissed. Scaled-back versions were developed by Wright, but they were not taken up by the city's planners either.

Two bridges he designed for his later schemes were especially beautiful. They were cable-stayed suspension bridges — very much cutting-edge engineering at the time — and would have been suspended across the Allegheny and the Mon from one big tower at the Point. Had they been built, they would be world-famous landmarks all by themselves, though they likely could never have handled the kind of traffic we have today.

The Kaufmann-Wright endeavors still played a role in our city's history: They continued to challenge the city fathers of the time to think on a grand scale – something that was definitely needed as our smoky, dirty and worn-out old city emerged from World War II.

Wright's archives have for years been stored by the private Taliesin Foundation — the official custodian of Wright's papers — at the two sites where Wright maintained his studios. These were in Spring Green, Wis., and at Taliesin West, his winter quarters in Scottsdale, Ariz. Neither location was designed for preservation — or access — the way a library or museum is. In fact, the easiest access to Wright's letters in recent years was at a photocopy archive placed at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

There are something like 23,000 architectural drawings, 300,000 letters and pieces of office correspondence, 44,000 photographs, plus building models, manuscripts and other items in the collection. Columbia's Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, which houses what's probably the most important collection of architectural books, drawings and archives in the United States, will likely make all the Wright materials available to scholars by the end of 2013.

All those involved in the movement of the archives believe it will add a new dimension to Wright scholarship, as it will make access to all relevant documentation easier and in one place. It also will enable more detailed study by architects, students and historians of some of the major Wright projects that were never built.

Plans for Pittsburgh are an example. Wright actually designed — mostly in preliminary stages — nearly a dozen other buildings for Edgar Kaufmann. There were several unbuilt projects for the land around Fallingwater, including a chapel and a gatehouse. But, for in the city, he also drew up a proposed parking garage for Kaufmann's Department Store (it would have been where the Macy's parking garage is now) and another building that would have been strikingly beautiful: an apartment building at the edge of Mt. Washington overlooking the Point.

Most of these designs were perfectly practical and buildable. But for various reasons, none came to fruition. This was sometimes because economic conditions became unattractive for a new venture, or Kaufmann simply changed his priorities. And in the case of the Mt. Washingon apartments — which were at a fairly advanced state of design — the death of Kaufmann's wife, Lilianne, threw the project off track. Wright's Mt. Washington design, incidentally, helped inspire Pittsbugh architect Louis Astorino's Trimont apartments and condominiums that stand on Grandview Avenue today.

One interior-design project did get built. Wright designed a striking office for Edgar Kaufmann in the Kaufmann's Department Store. But that office was dismantled during a subsequent store remodeling and is now a permanent exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

 

 
 


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