Clearly we are living in an era aided by new technologies that are making our cities denser and the buildings in them taller than ever before. Organizations like the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) are keeping tabs on the global horse race between architects and nations to scoop the title of world’s tallest building. We are now technologically capable of building mile-high structures. But at what cost? We are at a critical time where the re-examination of the benefits and consequences of building tall is warranted. So it comes at an especially propitious moment in time that MoMA has taken up this subject in an new exhibition that looks at Frank Lloyd Wright’s thinking about the growing American City in the early 20th century.
Frank Lloyd Wright and the City - Density vs. Dispersal, on view at MoMA from 1 February until 1 June 2014, highlights the architect’s deeply ambivalent feelings about cities as seen through a mix of media including drawings, films, and large scale models drawn from the architect’s archive, which was recently acquired by MoMA and Columbia University’s Avery Architectural Library. Wright was ardently anti-urban and indeed a proponent of dispersed cities. Broadacre City (1934-35), his manifesto project, which envisioned a well planned city of private Usonian houses set in a countryside that was interconnected with a network of highways, was a scheme that embodied many of the trappings and ideas of today’s modern suburbia. His spectacular 12' x 12' model of that 1934-35 proposal is one of the highlights of the exhibition. And it’s juxtaposition with his early visions for skyscrapers is evidence that the architect had mixed feelings on the subject of density vs. dispersal.
Wright’s innovative structural experiments for building the vertical city engaged questions of urban density and sought to bring light and landscaped settings to tall buildings. His dalliances with the skyscraper is book-ended by two projects in the show - a 24-story office tower for the San Francisco Call newspaper (1913), the 6ft high model of which is on view, and the mile-high tower he envisioned for Chicago (1956). These projects evidence Wright’s growing appetite to be in on the horse race at that time to build the tallest tower. His design for the National Life Insurance Company, a tower clad entirely in glass, was innovative for its time and presages today’s edgy glass towers.
While Wright was eager to participate in shaping tall buildings, he did so only as he recognized that skyscrapers were inevitable. He remained steadfast in his disapproval of multi-storied buildings in the city and his designs for tall buildings always envisioned them surrounded by farms and fields. Bearing witness to the growth of skyscrapers in New York and Chicago, Wright designed a set of guidelines in 1926, a project he called 'Skyscraper Regulation', an urban environment for a group of tall buildings that sought to regulate the location and height of skyscrapers. These regulations were intended to optimize the amount of sunlight that fell to the street to minimize the negative effects of closely spaced buildings that were turning streets like New York’s Wall Street into shadowy caverns, a concern that is still relevant today with the increased densification of cities. Wright’s regulations marked an end to his experiments with tall buildings after which he turned his focus to projects like Broadacre City that offered a new model of dispersed urban living.
The work shown in MoMA’s exhibition illustrates Wright’s ability to imagine the city paradoxically as both a vertical and horizontal extension and yet always more humanely and greener then others saw it at that time. There are still lessons to be learned from America’s most important architect. With Wright’s archive now based in New York, I’m hoping that Density vs. Dispersal is the first of many such shows we will see at MoMA and that the museum will use the opportunity of the archive to shed new light on this mid-western architect’s work, particularly in the eastern United States where Wright buildings have been disappearing and continue to be threatened.