Frank Lloyd Wright Exhibit at Phoenix Art Museum Misses the Point

Rand was shocked by what she experienced. According to Friedland and Zellman, she found that it "'was like a feudal establishment . . . [the apprentices] were like medieval serfs. The most horrible thing was that the menu for [Wright's] table, where his guests also ate, was different from the menu for his students. We sat on a raised platform, high above the others, we ate fancy delicacies and they got fried eggs; it was a real caste system.' That the apprentices paid for such privileges simply stunned her . . . And she was distressed to see that their work 'was badly imitative of Wright.'"

Rand found Wright's apprentices to be glorified farmhands, construction workers, and house servants, all of whom bowed to the will of their architect overlord. It was an odd way of life for a so-called visionary who purported to be interested in creating low-cost, utilitarian housing for the American Everyman.

Oasis in the Desert, a plan for the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix (circa 1957)
courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum
Oasis in the Desert, a plan for the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix (circa 1957)
Oasis in the Desert, a model of Wright's plans for the Arizona State Capitol
Courtesy Phoenix Art Museum
Oasis in the Desert, a model of Wright's plans for the Arizona State Capitol

Location Info


Phoenix Art Museum

1625 N. Central Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

Category: Museums

Region: Central Phoenix


"Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture of the 21st Century" will be display through April 29. Admission is $12 for adults.
Call 602-257-1222 or
visit »web link.

Though a sizable number of the project plans on display in "Frank Lloyd Wright" may be long on sculptural charm, they fall very short on real functionality and, in fact, were never built in any century, much less the 21st. A good example of this is the large model you encounter before you walk into the exhibit proper, Oasis in the Desert (1957); it is the maquette for the Arizona State Capitol building envisioned by Wright. The plan called for a 400-foot-wide area of fountains, gardens, and reflecting pools covered by an open-to-the-elements, honeycombed latticework roof of crenellated concrete (Phoenix's suffocating summer heat and searing July sunlight be damned). Wright wanted an enormous spire, similar to the one he designed for the First Christian Church on Seventh Avenue, to top off the dome. Two hexagonal copper-domed halls flanking the garden area were slated to be state House and Senate chambers. Other wings would house the governor's offices, the Supreme Court, and other government agencies.

Because Wright insisted on having the project built, of all places, in the pristine buttes of Papago Park, his plan was a definite no-go, thank God. How's that for "harmonious integration of building and landscape and high functionality"?

Other projects actually built in flagrant violation of Wright's purported organic principle of structure accommodating site abound. One of the most obvious, besides the turban-shaped Guggenheim Museum on the Upper East Side of New York City and Ennis House, a monumental, textile-concrete block residence virtually crushing a hilltop in Los Angeles like some Spanish parador, is Fallingwater.

Wright designed and built Fallingwater, which was supposed to be a casual rural retreat, for department store magnates Liliane and Edgar Kaufmann in 1935. A video of this highly problematic house, cantilevered precipitously over the top of a waterfall at Bear Run Falls in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania — which is in need of constant restoration and maintenance — is a part of PAM's exhibit, along with renderings most probably executed by either longtime apprentice Jack Howe or Bob Mosher.

And then there's Broadacre City, a giant model of which sucks up a large part of the back of Steele Gallery. Edgar Kaufmann underwrote the plans for this utopian social fantasy of Wright's, as first explained in the architect's 1932 book, The Disappearing City, which he then elaborated upon via lectures, books, and articles up until his death. Wright was in favor of razing large urban centers, like New York and Chicago, and replacing them with sprawling, low-density suburban areas linked by various modes of motorized transportation (cars, freeways, trains, and, later, monorails and personal planes) that would ooze over the country, from sea to shining sea. Each citizen of Broadacre City would be given at least one acre of land, ideally from federal land reserves, on which to personally build a home of pre-fab components — of Wright's design, naturally — and attain self-sufficiency by farming. Broadacre City citizens have little or no use for cash and would barter for, instead of purchase, the food, supplies, and services they could not provide themselves. They are jacks-of-all-trades, as there are no "experts" in Broadacre City: farmers, industrial workers, artists (woe unto anyone in need of serious medical care). Completely decentralized, there is no governmental bureaucracy at all, with one major caveat: The entire shebang would be run by organic architects — in 1932, that was essentially Frank Lloyd Wright — who would plan and run the cities, determining who could own land and how much, and whether and where roads would be built.

No one seriously bought into the Broadacre City plan, including the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, which was approached by Wright for funding but soundly rebuffed the entire idea. And, as pointed out by Arizona State University professor Paul Zygas, an architecture historian, in "Broadacre City as Artifact," a chapter in Frank Lloyd Wright: The Phoenix Papers Volume I: Broadacre City (1995), Wright didn't really invent any new urban-planning concepts with Broadacre City (except, possibly, the part about organic architect(s) running the entire show). In fact, many of his propositions had already arrived on the American scene; he merely "repackaged the American order of things."

Frank Lloyd Wright's personal life is the stuff from which TV miniseries are made. A CliffsNotes-style version of his biography gives you some idea how outrageously he thumbed his nose at the very principles of home, hearth, and morality he was supposed to have been championing.

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