Better chug a Red Bull before you walk into "Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century," currently taking up Steele Gallery at Phoenix Art Museum. You'll need it.
Yes, Phoenix Art Museum has done it yet again, only this time it had help from the Milwaukee Art Museum. Just in time for Arizona's centennial celebration, PAM rolled out the red carpet for an exceptionally soporific traveling show only an architect with OCD might love, on view through April 29. Both Arizona and Wisconsin, locations of Wright's Taliesin homes, lay claim to Wright as a quintessential homeboy. So whom better for Arizona to drag out and parade around on this momentous occasion?
If you love poring over blueprints, you're going to absolutely drool over this show. For all its pre-run press, "Frank Lloyd Wright" is a lackluster exhibition heavy on plot plans, elevations, models, and client-presentation drawings now owned and archived by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation — most of which, by the way, were not drawn or made by Wright himself. Despite the reference to "organic architecture" in the title, the show is totally devoid of any explanation regarding the complexity of Wright's professional, aesthetic, and social philosophies, personal lifestyle, or construction foibles, elements critical to understanding how the world's most notorious architect lived his life and the utopian goal that he claimed was the basis of his art.
Yes, PAM's "Frank Lloyd Wright" is yet another sterling example of the bland leading the bland into the gift shop nirvana of coffee mugs, ties, and notepads emblazoned with Wright designs — designs that may or may not have been created by the flamboyant architect. It's disappointing that the museum has bought into the cloying cult of genius that surrounds Frank Lloyd Wright even to this day, rather than presenting a critical look at the work of a man who was not what he appeared or claimed to be.
Phoenix Art Museum's ad for its latest supposed blockbuster lures you in with the line, "Wright's visionary designs emphasized the use of natural materials, harmonious integration of building and landscape, and high functionality."
The problem is that, in creating a structure, whether residential or commercial, Wright very often blatantly ignored the basic tenets of organic architecture he claims to have devised, not to mention the wishes and needs of his usually frustrated clients. In point of fact, Wright was a self-crowned crusader against ugliness wherever found in American life, as well as ultimate arbiter of what amounted to "beauty," which didn't always take into consideration comfort, safety, or serviceability. And I'm still trying to figure out how molded concrete blocks, dearly loved by the architect, can be considered a "natural material."
Recent scholarship verifies that Wright lifted wholesale the term "organic architecture" — and the concepts underpinning it — from 19th-century English art critic John Ruskin, to whose writings he was exposed at an early age by his architecture-obsessed mother, Anna Lloyd Wright. According to one Wright biographer, Meryle Secrest, Ruskin believed that right emotion, true feeling, and lofty thought were all included in the concept of what was beautiful — "even that the perception of beauty was a test of one's morality and inner integrity." Ruskin also pushed the notion that architecture was the highest form of art and that its practice "ennobled" the practitioner, elevating him far above the rest of us mere mortals.
"[Wright's] whole architectural philosophy," says Secrest in Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography (1992), "was based on the Arts and Crafts concept that a house should express an ideal of marriage and family life." This is particularly ironic in light of the fact that Wright's personal life was akin to a bad soap opera, rife with failed marriages, verbal and even physical abuse, abandoned children, extravagant living at the expense of others, and debt collectors at the door.
For Wright, the concept of organic architecture was very fluid, if not entirely amorphous. It would be just one of many ideas the architect ripped off from other people, for which he brazenly would cop credit. In fact, much of what you see in "Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century" was the physical product of blood, sweat, and tears shed by apprentices in Wright's Taliesin Fellowship, the precursor to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, founded in 1932 in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Plans for three incarnations of Taliesin, as well as for Scottsdale's Taliesin West, appear in the exhibition without much information as to why the Wisconsin Taliesin kept being rebuilt.
Brendan Gill, the Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright (1987) author who knew the architect personally, notes that "Wright boasted all too often of having revolutionized 20th-century architecture. He did so, he said, by means of his genius, aided by certain technical innovations for which he was always quick to take credit. Many of these innovations required hitherto untested engineering solutions, and it is one of the oddities of Wright's voluminous documentation of his work that he has comparatively little to say about the sources of his engineering skills."