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303 Pieces of the Wright Stuff

Look closely at any city in the United States today, and you will see the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the twentieth century's greatest architects. Many of the low-slung designs which dot today's suburbs developed from his "prairie house" concept. The triangular roof he designed for a Unitarian church in 1947 is now replicated in cities nationwide. Wright's concepts of "open space" evolved into the great room--the large space that has usurped the formal living room and the den.

"Frank Lloyd Wright Drawings: Masterworks From the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives" at the Phoenix Art Museum conveys not only the breadth and magnitude of Wright's achievements, but gives a sense of his creative process as well. Best of all, these 303 original Wright drawings are not dry, technical renderings of interest only to architects; many are fine works of art that communicate Wright's contributions to American architecture.

Looking at the exhibit, one finds it hard to remember that these drawings span seven decades of Wright's prolific career--he worked from 1887 until his death in 1959. The buildings he designed almost a century ago still seem current in today's architectural idiom. It's startling to see women wearing floor-length skirts in his drawings and men sporting top hats and holding walking sticks as they stand in line at a moviehouse or walk by a church that is still part of the contemporary world. In his 1930s and 1940s pieces, period cars are pulling away from buildings that could have been built last year.

The 303 drawings on exhibit were selected from the more than 21,000 drawings in the Frank Lloyd Wright Archive housed at Taliesin West in Scottsdale. The exhibition, which will be MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 shown only in Phoenix, includes many rarely exhibited drawings and sketches. "Many of these drawings have not been seen for fifty years and probably will not be seen for another fifty," said Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, exhibition curator and director of archives for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The most recent Wright exhibition of this size and importance was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1962.

All of which is to say that the people of Phoenix have a unique chance to see an exhibition that the entire nation would like to view.

There is something oddly satisfying about looking at hundreds of architectural drawings without accompanying photographs or three-dimensional models of the actual buildings. Such an exhibition makes clear that it is not the constructed building itself which matters, but rather the creative mind behind the design. In the final analysis of art history, Wright's achievements must be judged based on all the designs he developed, not just on the commissions he received. Wright designed 1,151 buildings and other works, of which 510 designs actually were built. An exhibition such as this, which includes designs for many of those unbuilt projects, offers viewers more than a tour of Wright's buildings might. One discovers, for example, that Wright's famous circular design for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum clearly evolved from a design done almost twenty years earlier for the Gordon Strong Planetarium, a project that never was realized. For the architectural neophyte it seems wondrous that these drawings are the products of a working architect. As one viewer said, "It's amazing they could build a building from these drawings." The exhibition includes a full range of drawings from the first records of a design on paper, through the formal presentation drawings developed for potential clients, to the working drawings from which buildings are built. While the conceptual sketches are entirely Wright's work, the other drawings involve various levels of collaboration. Yet Wright's eye and mind are clear throughout. For example, when he signed a drawing of the Guggenheim Museum, Wright added one small, ironic touch to the draftsman's work: a yo-yo dangling from a bored child's hand.

Each type of drawing offers different rewards, from the conceptual to the aesthetic. In one case, Wright sketched Col 3, Depth P54.02 I9.03 openness is at the heart of Wright's contribution to modern architecture.

While his mentor Louis Sullivan coined the phrase "Form follows function," Wright proclaimed, "Form and function are one." He believed that it was the space, rather than the shell of a building, which should create architecture and determine design. Wright broke away from the boxlike divisions of traditional rooms to create a continuous open space, and he often used large glass areas to allow the inside space to meld with the exterior world. He named his work "organic architecture" because he felt that a building's form should arise from the nature of its use and should fit in organically with its surrounding environment. Wright began developing this philosophy early on as part of his residential "prairie house" designs. These low, horizontally oriented houses with strong vertical lines reflected their setting--the Midwest prairie.

Although Wright did many residential designs early in his career, he ultimately designed every kind of building imaginable. The exhibit itself is organized into nine sections based on the type of building designed, and the drawings within each section are ordered chronologically. This structure emphasizes the influence of function on Wright's work and makes the whole easier to grasp. As a retrospective, however, it does leave one wondering about the overall chronological perspective and the development of Wright's design through history.

The significance of Wright's contributions to modern architecture is unarguable. His simplified designs became the heart of an indigenous American architecture which abandoned the ornamentation and historic styles of European design. Because "Frank Lloyd Wright Drawings" proffers a sense of what it means to be a genius in one's chosen field, it is the kind of exhibition that can be enjoyed not just by art and architecture fans, but by anyone intrigued with the possibilities and creativity of the human mind. "Frank Lloyd Wright Drawings" will continue through April 8 at the Phoenix Art Museum. Located at 1625 North Central, the museum is keeping special hours for this exhibit: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Wednesday until 9 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults, $2.50 for senior citizens, $1.50 for students and free for children twelve and under. Admission is free for all on Wednesdays.

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Pamela Portwood