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Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011

Frank Lloyd Wright for the 21st Century

Milwaukee Art Museum re-examines Wisconsin’s great architect

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With his flowing cape, parson’s hat and mane of white hair, not to mention his thunderous denunciations of philistines wherever he found them (and he saw them everywhere), Frank Lloyd Wright sometimes resembled a 19th-century evangelist more than a cutting-edge cultural giant from the 20th century. But as displayed in an upcoming exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Wright has much to say even to the 21st century. If Wright walked the Earth in 2011, he might be among the foremost exponents of building green as well as living green.

For Wright, architecture was never the purely utilitarian practice of workaday builders or the empty egotism of many of today’s most touted architects. Sure, Wright’s ego was huge, but so was his vision. In Wright’s world, architecture was the queen of the arts, and the arts, aside from being inseparable from life, had the mission of revealing the beauty and spirituality of humanity and the cosmos. Wright insisted that the spaces we inhabit—and the chairs we sit upon—help determine who we are as individuals and as a society. No detail was too small to escape Wright’s attention. He would position a home to take maximum advantage of sunshine for light and warmth, placing the building in ways that sheltered it from blistering winds. Wright was acutely aware of the environment and humanity’s relationship with nature.

The curator of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s “Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century” is pleased to mount the exhibition in a building by Santiago Calatrava, one of the most important architects of our time and a great admirer of Wright.

“When Calatrava was commissioned to design the museum’s addition, he visited Frank Lloyd Wright sites in Wisconsin,” says Brady Roberts, MAM’s chief curator. “Wright always responded to nature and locale just as Calatrava does—there’s an incredible affinity there. Both architects maintained the passion and integrity of their vision.”

Born in Wisconsin in 1867, Wright apprenticed in Chicago, where he executed his first significant commissions. Returning in 1911 and settling in Spring Green, he established Taliesin, his home and studio as well as the site of his guild-like fellowship of architectural students. Rural Wisconsin’s landscape shaped his imagination and inspired the “Prairie Style” for which he is remembered.

Because he lived mostly in the Midwest, our region is rich with Wright. The last design he completed before his death in 1959, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, epitomized Wright’s commitment to tradition and innovation, function and location. Resembling a flying saucer that landed amid the low-slung subdivisions of Milwaukee’s Northwest Side, Annunciation’s ground plan also reflected the Byzantine geometry of infinity. Like the Bogk house on Milwaukee’s East Side or the S.C. Johnson offices in Racine, it was attuned to the needs of its occupants and the space it occupied.

Although Wright earned his living from the commissions of wealthy clients, the upcoming exhibit showcases his concern for democratizing his vision.

“Wright wanted mass-producible, ennobling celebrations of humanity,” Roberts says. “He wanted great architecture to be available to everyone.”

Witness the modest houses he designed on Milwaukee’s Burnham Street. “The wood was cut in the lumberyard and assembled on site for efficiency. The houses occupy a small footprint but feel spacious and airy due to their proportions and connections with the outdoors,” Roberts continues. Other Wright homes were innovatively heated with coils below the floors for energy efficiency.

Wright foresaw suburbia as America’s future, but his vision scarcely resembled the sprawl that has engulfed the countryside during the past 60 years. He advocated using underground parking so that shops and offices would not be marooned in a sea of parked cars, integrating farmland into residential and commercial districts and incorporating the natural environment into the built environment. According to Roberts, Wright would reject today’s McMansions as “not only ugly, but inefficient. He was opposed to developers who obliterated nature and then tried to recreate it in an ugly fashion. Wright’s model has tremendous value in today’s world.”

“Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century” runs Feb. 12-May 15 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. For more information, visit www.mam.org.


David Luhrssen is co-author of
A Time of Paradox: America Since 1890 and has taught at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and UW-Milwaukee.
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