Wright On Fifth
December 13, 2004
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT
BY ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE
VIKING BOOKS, 251 PAGES, $19.95
FRANK Lloyd Wright despised New York. It wasn't just that New York had snubbed him — though it had, publicly and unjustly. In 1932, a dreadful year for Wright and for the country, the Museum of Modern Art mounted what became a renowned though mundanely named show: "Modern Architecture: International Exhibition," organized by the very young Phillip Johnson.
The show consigned Wright to history, writes biographer Ada Louise Huxtable, dismissing him as "the greatest architect of the 19th century," in Johnson's words.
Johnson would go on to design many buildings in New York, though few great ones. Wright would design only one, but it would be a masterpiece: the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue. Huxtable calls it his "most contentious creation," quite a title in his contention-filled life.
But Wright's dislike of New York was also based on the city's fundamental character: It was just too big, messy and inelegant for his taste. For all his sophistication, Wright was a Midwesterner at heart — a lover of the open prairie, which inspired some of his most famous houses, and an admirer of nature both as setting and as muse. Yet the Guggenheim — Eastern, elitist, urban and seemingly the antithesis of so much Wright work — was Wright's kind of building in its radical departure from what had gone before.
Solomon Guggenheim was a wealthy collector of nonobjective art, whose practitioners (Wassily Kandinsky, Max Ernst, Jean Arp, and others) believed they had freed painting from all references to recognizable objects. Huxtable says they claimed to have devised a new reality that extended pictorial space beyond the picture frame into real space.
By experiencing paintings, indeed by becoming part of the painting, viewers would grasp a new understanding of art and reality. The result would be inner serenity, oneness with the world and, taken to its logical conclusion, world peace.
This hokum appealed to Wright's revolutionary sense. One of his old preoccupations would re-emerge triumphantly in the Guggenheim: his search for what Huxtable calls a "sculptural architecture" that would be unbroken by walls and floors, where mass and space would be one, just as the painting and space sought to be one. In the 1940s, the only material that could produce the sculptural look Wright sought was reinforced concrete — an over-the-top idea for the time.
Indeed, the Department of Buildings, with no sympathy for over-the-top design, found so many violations that it refused to issue a building permit. The violations couldn't be fixed without abandoning the whole idea of the continuous spiral structure and interior open plan — the very essence of the building. Luckily for Wright, master builder Robert Moses was a cousin by marriage.
The permit was issued. But prominent builders refused to take on what Huxtable calls the inevitable technical problems of the unprecedented construction. After much delay, one of Wright's former assistants showed up with a builder named George N. Cohen. Cohen's work was so good that Wright shared credit with him on the cornerstone — one more unprecedented occurrence.
This is a biography of a master architect by a master writer. Huxtable's prose is splendid and her analysis acute, though generous. She writes of the Guggenheim: "The building is alive; the movement of people and their murmurous sounds, the surrounding color and form, redefine social space and the way art is seen and felt within, although certainly not as originally intended."
In the end, Wright gave New Yorkers a building as alive as his beloved prairie.
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
©2004 New York Post
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