by Saxon Henry
Last week, the Global Trends team visited the Guggenheim Museum in New York City to see the exhibition titled “A Long-Awaited Tribute: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian House and Pavilion.” The intimate glimpse at one of the architectural powerhouse’s most ephemeral designs included sketches, blueprints, models and images of the building, as well as some cool casual glimpses at Frank Lloyd Wright himself.
Frank Lloyd Wright
at the Guggenheim
I say ephemeral because the house and pavilion were temporary structures built on the site where the Guggenheim Museum now stands. They were constructed to hold the exhibition “Sixty Years of Living Architecture: The Work of Frank Lloyd Wright,” which opened on October 22, 1953. The pavilion was made of glass, fiberboard and pipe columns; and the 1,700-square-foot house was a fully furnished, two-bedroom model representing Wright’s organic solution for modest, middle-class dwellings.
The materials assembled in this latest exhibited at the Guggenheim were drawn from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Archives. Each photograph, sketch and blueprint was chosen to pay homage to the two structures and to give Wright the recognition he had lacked in New York City before the 1953 exhibition opened. This was surprising given the architect had been practicing for 50 years and had gained international recognition by then. “This house and the pavilion alongside it…represent a long-awaited tribute: the first Wright building[s] erected in New York City,” Wright said of the effort.
It was a decade earlier when the relationship between Wright and the Museum was born. Hilla Rebay, the first director and curator of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (the precursor to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) contacted Wright in 1943 to ask for his help. “Could you ever come to New York and discuss with me a building for our collection of Non-objective paintings,” he wrote. “I want a temple of spirit—a monument, and your help to make it possible.”
Wright agreed to come to town and the selection of and purchase of a site for the museum quickly became a priority. The entire Fifth Avenue block frontage between 88th and 89th streets, which included a townhouse located at 1071 Fifth Avenue that temporarily housed the museum, was acquired in 1951. This ushered in a new energy and in 1952, James Johnson Sweeney was appointed director of the museum, which was then given its current name in a tribute to Solomon R. Guggenheim who had passed away in 1949. By 1953, the planning for the new museum was well underway, though construction was postponed due to technical objections from the New York City Department of Buildings.
Sixty Years of Living Architecture
The letter in which Wright proposed bringing the exhibition “Sixty Years of Living Architecture” to the empty lots in New York City was on display, the jaunty tone of his prose reflective of his personality. “The Big Show: “Sixty Years of Living Architecture” (now in Mexico City),” he wrote, “is about to go Philippines, Japan, and India on tour. Strikes me a pre-view at our Museum before sailing would be a good thing…”
Wright added, “10,000 square feet required, etc., probably also Ten Thousand Dollars. Altogehter. Have already refused the Museum of Modern Art. But House Beautiful is now out to show up the International Style. So am I.” As he’s bringing the proposal to a close, he asked, “What say?” The Museum’s answer—yes—was a smart move considering the critical acclaim the exhibition received.
Visitors entered through the museum townhouse, which was showcasing artworks from the permanent collection, and accessed the Wright-designed pavilion through an archway cut into the north wall of the townhouse. Located inside the pavilion were sixteen models of Wright’s renowned buildings, documented by square photographs, floor plans and drawings. The highlight of the exhibition, of course, was the full-scale Usonian House, which was situated northeast of the pavilion and could be entered through a courtyard and garden.
Wright stated in a press release that the house contained “characteristic[s] of the so-called ‘Prairie House’ of sixty years ago with its modern, human scale, its open-place and glowing space, its corner windows and sense of indoors and outdoors.” Given the goal of the melding of inside and outside, landscaping was an integral part of the exhibition, as it was with all of Wright’s projects. The museum reports that visitors spent hours wandering through the exhibition, one attendee noting, “It’s wonderful, but it’s too much. You can’t take it all in.”
The exhibition was slated to close on November 29, 1953, but it was so popular the museum extended it to December 13. After closing, the Museum planned to keep the pavilion as a temporary exhibition structure until construction on the current building began. The Usonian house was to be sold with its custom-made furnishings intact. But in January 1954, Mother Nature had other plans and heavy snow shattered the sandblasted-glass sections of the pavilion roof leaving the structure irrevocably damaged to the point it had to be dismantled.
The Usonian house was auctioned off in mid-1954 but the sale fell through and the disassembled house went to David Henken, who stored the mid-century modern milieu on his property in Usonia for nearly 30 years. In 1984, it was donated to a fundraising auction held by WNET and was purchased by Tom Monoghan, a well-known collector of Frank Lloyd Wright artifacts. The intention was to reconstruct the house but Henken, who would have done so, died unexpectedly in 1985 before construction could begin. Of what remains, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy has been bequeathed only a few pieces.
The lots adjacent to the townhouse remained vacant until the 1956 groundbreaking when the construction for the current museum began. This iteration of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened on October 21, 1959—57 years ago on Friday. Unfortunately, Wright didn’t live long enough to see the final result of his designs for the rotund building, as he died on April 9, 1959, in Phoenix, Arizona.
Frank Lloyd Wright at the MET
After seeing the artistic process behind this exhibition, it seemed a fitting tribute for us to make our way a few blocks south to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the living room from the summer residence of Francis W. Little, which has been installed in a beautifully lit room the MET. The home was designed and built between 1912 and 1914 in Wayzata, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis.
The room epitomizes Wright’s concept of “organic architecture,” in which the building, setting, interior and furnishings are inextricably related. The house is composed of a group of low pavilions interspersed with gardens and terraces, which, in plan, radiate from a central symbolic hearth. It exemplifies one of Wright’s most important contributions to modern architecture: the idea of spatial continuity.
Low overhanging roofs and geometric window “grilles” with stylized plant motifs once linked the interior visually and spatially to the wooded site overlooking Lake Minnetonka. The living room at the MET is not merely a single, enclosed volume but a series of horizontal levels surrounded by glass, which allows the interplay of natural light and the rich, earthy tones that Wright employed throughout the room.
The Museum’s installation was strategized to preserve the continuity between interior and exterior, the effect achieved by positioning it to have a view of Central Park. The moment we stepped into the room, a breathless feel came over us and the looks we exchanged said it all, as did the collective exhale we unconsciously set free after we’d been in the space for a few moments.
It was a wonderful day spent absorbing the type of creativity we love at Global Lighting. Our enjoyment of the quests designers and architects feel driven to follow as they create powerful environments remains a dynamic part of our daily lives as we provide lighting for me, a task we take so seriously. This post is for each and every one of you striving for excellence day-in and day-out, and serves as a celebration of Architecture and Design Month in New York City, better known as Archtober.
If you aren’t able to make it to New York before the exhibition closes on February 2, 2017, MoMA will hold a Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective later in 2017 in honor of what would have been his 150th birthday. The exhibition, titled “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive,” will feature approximately 450 works. This post on Architect Magazine intelligently highlights the retrospective, which will run from June 12, 2017 through October 1, 2017. And if you aren’t planning a trip to New York City anytime soon, you can view a nice array of videos of well-known architects of our day highlighting the architectural prowess that Wright left to the world and its impact on their designs on PBS.
For a bit of fun, I came across this post on Archdaily titled “The Strange Habits of Top Architects” that I’m including here because it provides insight into some of our design heroes, including Charles and Ray Eames, who played with the same toy every day; and points out that Leonardo da Vinci, Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright had something in common. You’ll have to click through to see what this is.
Tagged under: Archdaily, Architectu Magazine, Architecture and Design Month, Archtober, Charles and Ray Eames, design exhibitions, design process, design visionaries, exhibition, Guggenheim Museum, installation, mid-century modern, modern architecture, MoMA, museum exhibitions, Museum of Modern Art, Museums New York City, New York, NYC, PBS, Things to do in New York City, Things to See in New York City