Monday, July 6, 2009

Frank Lloyd Wright at the Guggenheim Museum

The main reason we went to New York a couple of weeks ago was to see the first exhibition ever hel
d at the Guggenheim museum featuring its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. The exhibit commemorated the 50th anniversary of the building, which was completed 6 months after Wright died in 1959, at age 91. Original drawings, models (too few of these) and documents spiraled up the museum’s ramps.

A New Yorker article about the exhibit notes t
hat "staff at the Guggenheim like to refer to the building as the most important object in the museum’s collection...." That is so true. We certainly go there to enjoy the building itself as much as the artwork it contains.

And if you believe the story told by the tour guides at Talesin, Wright's home in Wisconsin, the building was inspired by another obj
ect, this conch shell, which to this day sits on a shelf in his home. (I photographed it a few weeks ago through a window, since you're not allowed to take interior photos.)

It was strange and exciting to see Wright’s own drawings of the Guggenheim displayed in that very building itself. It was like walking into an M.C. Escher drawing. (Frink always says he wants to put an LCD TV with a video of a crackling fire in a fireplace over the real fireplace. Or one of those videos of fish swimming next to the fishtank. He's a clever lad, that Frink.)

It was also interesting to compare how the design evolved and changed – how the site selection, the other projects Wright was working on, and the negotiations with the client (who in the case of the Guggenheim, had a mind of her own) changed the artistic vision. Wright, for example, wanted the building’s exterior to be red. In another version, the widest part of the spiral was at ground level.

For architecture buffs and FLW groupies, the actual drawings, often larger than those in books, provided a lot more detail about
the plans for buildings, both those that were built, those that were outrageously and brutally demolished (like Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel), and those that were never built (like a huge, spacey Jetsons-mod theater complex and park Wright designed for Bagdad.) Some of the drawings had never been reproduced or displayed before.

Speaking of the Imperial Hotel, here's a photo (from
Wikipedia Commons.)

(My Aunt Fern and Uncle Edmond actually stayed there in the 60s, and when I get a scanner, I'll upl
oad Uncle E's slides of this magnificent building.) Ahead of its time (built 1923), it was designed to withstand an earthquake. In a weird twist of fate, at the opening ceremony, one of the worst earthquakes in Tokyo's history struck. While buildings throughout the city crumbled and burned, Wright's hotel was unscathed.

I bet the Japanese are kicking themselves for their short-sightedness in
tearing it down. Today, a single plate from the cafe sells for hundreds of dollars and chairs for thousands apiece. People would pay a premium to stay in one of the world's greatest structures. Tourists flock to the bit that remains in a museum. Until we can afford to fly to Japan, the closest Frink and I will ever come is this urn from the hotel, now in the Metropolitan Museum. It stands more than 5 feet tall. And our reproduction Cabaret china from the hotel's less formal cafe. But I digress.

The exhibit also included some computer animations, walking you visually through building. There was a cool "exploded" modle hung on wires of the Jacobs I, one of the most important Usonian houses. (Basically Usonian houses were built for regular folks, whom Wright felt deserved art and beauty as much as the wealthy. They featured a lot of wood and windows, great open spaces (Wright invented the "great room" concept), space-saving built-in furniture, and heated Cherokee red concrete floors.)

I'm getting a little better at looking at blueprints and such, but I am the kind of person who can't imagine spaces very well. (When some people want to rearrange the furniture, they can map it out or even imagine how it will look in their heads. I have to actually move the furniture and see it to decide if it looks good. Usually it doesn't. So then I have to move it back.) More models and animations would have made the exhibit even more enjoyable. Also, I wish they had included more photos of the finished buildings. Because FLW is our hobby, I've seen many of the actual buildings, but a lot of the visitors to the exhibit may not have.

In terms of collecting more objects to clutter our home, we were really restrained. We bought only two books, including the exhibit catalog. And of course I saved the free exhibit pamphlet. It featured this curtain, from the Hillside Theater at Taliesen, Wright’s home in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Seeing the curtain out of context, hung web.

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