Pittsburgh’s Point State Park, which occupies a wedge of land where the Ohio River forks, today is home to a pleasant fountain and the traces of a couple of old forts. If, however, the city had gone with Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1947 proposal, a ribbon of cars would now cruise leisurely up a spiral ramp around the exterior of a circular complex containing an opera house, movie theaters, a sports arena, a nine-acre park, and a landing pad for helicopters and balloons. Wright’s civic-center project was an inspiring and slightly lunatic plan—a Guggenheim Museum on steroids, a vertical strip mall, a pleasure dome that would make a Dubai emir blush.
The Guggenheim is celebrating a half-century in its corkscrew-shaped Wright building with a sweeping exhibit, “Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward.” It’s a bracing tonic to today’s narrow horizons and diminished ambitions. Wright barely seemed to notice the world wars he lived through, or the Depression, or even his own old age. None of those inconveniences dimmed his expansive concept of design—specifically, his designs. “If I had another fifteen years to work, I could rebuild this entire country, I could change the nation,” the 88-year-old Wright said in 1957.
He may have been megalomaniacal, but he was not naïve. He had traveled down too many dead ends and produced too many fruitless megaplans to have any illusions about how erratically ideas metamorphose into concrete form. And yet he retained an overpowering faith in the redemptive powers of architecture—a belief expressed in his grandiloquent but endearingly optimistic (and, needless to say, never-executed) plan to reshape large swaths of Baghdad.
The exhibit arrives just in time for another break in architectural history. A small cadre of auteurs has spent the past twenty years producing increasingly flamboyant museums and luxurious residences; this next period is likely to favor more ecologically sensitive and stylistically flexible designers. The Guggenheim’s show could have made the case that Wright blazed both trails. He transformed virtually every type of building he ever touched: the hilltop house, the desert ranch, the office tower, the factory, the residential skyscraper, the parking garage, the church, and the hotel. (There are limits that should constrain even the most cosmic visionary: Wright would gladly have dictated the lifestyles of entire urban populations but, fortunately, never got the chance.) We can still see ourselves mirrored in the irreducible contradictions of his vision. He was green before the term existed, yet he glorified the suburb and the automobile. He dreamed of housing millions, and was a towering snob.
But the show—jointly organized by the Guggenheim and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation—has a hagiographic air. It lacks his fearless vigor. The architect died six months before the Guggenheim opened, which is convenient because the chronological procession and the march up the ramp converge on the museum itself. Along the way, pale pencil-and-ink renderings and drawings click by like quiet billboards, their rhythm syncopated by several eloquent new three-dimensional models, an assortment of slideshows, and animated video tours of never-built or long-demolished projects. This elegant agglomeration of archival material emphasizes his aesthetic achievement, and certainly Wright deserves everlasting praise for the deftness with which he sliced light as it slid into a room, for exposing the soul in rock, for the way he arranged rooms into a pinwheel of space around the pivot of a fireplace, for the grace with which he grafted structures onto the landscape. But the show skims over his breathtaking radicalism. Mike Wallace began a 1957 interview with him by asking about religion, war, euthanasia, “the common man,” and modern art. He treated Wright as an American prophet—an infuriating philosopher of democracy. The show demotes him to the status of mere architectural genius.