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Wright, Kaufmann family collaboration displayed at New York museum

John Conti
| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 5:27 p.m.
Installation view of the exhibition 'Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal' at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Museum of Modern Art
Installation view of the exhibition 'Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal' at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

NEW YORK — No architect has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art here so often as Frank Lloyd Wright. And the museum is proving that the grand old man of American architecture — dead now for 55 years — can still draw big crowds with an exhibit through June 1 called “Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal.”

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a room-sized model made by Wright and his apprentices in 1934 and 1935 called Broadacre City, a model that was originally funded and heavily promoted by the Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh.

Newly restored by the museum, the model was the first of many collaborations between Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar Kaufmann Sr., his wife, Liliane, and their son, Edgar Kaufmann Jr. The relationship between Wright and the family was to last some 25 years and resulted most famously in his designing Fallingwater, the spectacular house cantilevered over Bear Run near Ohiopyle.

The Broadacre City model, measuring 12 feet square, was not planned for any specific location, but was intended by Wright to demonstrate what he considered an ideal city. It represented an area of about four square miles. A check Wright solicited at a dinner with Edgar Kaufmann Sr. — whose son was then a Wright apprentice — got the original construction of the model under way.

Wright professed to hate the density and congestion of cities, and so his concept for Broadacre is essentially that of a giant suburb planned on a rigid gridiron of streets and highways. It shows Wright-designed individual family houses set on an acre of land each, with factories, community centers, offices, orchards and other elements dispersed across the landscape. High-rise buildings are set, by Wright's prescription, as though they were a mile apart.

The essence of this urban ideal was decentralization, supported by the speed and convenience of automobiles, which could move freely through this ultra-dispersed city. The decentralization would obviate the congestion of skyscraper cities that had come to be overwhelmed, in the 1920s and 1930s, by automobiles. It's a problem that obsessed many planners and architects in those years, all of whom came up with schemes of their own.

Wright's scheme, though it presaged the suburban sprawl of the United States in the 1950s, was no better at coming up with solutions than most, as the problem has never gone away. Despite all the land we use up providing for the automobile, we live today with not just congested cities, but, sometimes, congested suburbs, as well.

Yet, this ingeniously contrived show does something rather amazing by contrasting the essentially anti-city Broadacre scheme with Wright's plans and drawings for high-rise buildings. Though he claimed to dislike the city, Wright paradoxically developed some of the most imaginative and elegant ideas for high-rise buildings ever. It's when you study those ideas at this show that his genius comes to life.

The show includes a timeline of original drawings and some striking models of various high-rises developed during his nearly seven-decades long career. It begins with a 24-story newspaper office in San Francisco that was proposed in 1914 but never built, up to his truly pie-in-the-sky ideas in 1956 for a mile-high skyscraper in Chicago. Unfortunately, of the dozen or so high-rise schemes he developed over the years, only two were ever built.

With the possible exception of the “mile-high” concoction, they were all perfectly practical and buildable. Wright, the show leads you to conclude, may have disliked the crowded high-rise city, but the fact that his own high-rises were almost never built has been a big loss.

The Broadacre City model was not static, but continued to change over the years with new ideas. It was first shown in April 1935 at an industrial arts exposition at Rockefeller Center in New York, and then came directly to Pittsburgh, where the Kaufmann's exhibited it to big crowds on the 11th floor of their Downtown department store (now Macy's) during an anniversary sale that year. Both Kaufmanns, senior and junior, were involved in promoting it here and in planning a subsequent multicity tour.

The current show is the first product of a 2-year-old arrangement between the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, the museum and Columbia University's Avery Architectural Library. Unable to properly store and care for the thousands of drawings, letters, models and so on that the foundation had kept all these years at Wright's two former homes in Arizona and Wisconsin, it shipped them to New York and put them in the permanent joint care of the museum and the university. Conservators and historians at both institutions are at work on the voluminous archives, and a much larger exhibition of Wright's work is being planned for 2017, which will be the 150th anniversary of his birth.

“Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal” will be on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City through June 1.

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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