Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Guggenheim "From Within"

This week, I had the distinct pleasure of touring the Guggenheim Museum with Curatorial Assistant for Architecture and Design, Maria Nicanor, to see the exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward. The museum-wide exhibit focuses on sixty-four of Wright's key projects - built and unbuilt - culminating in his final, major built work, the Guggenheim itself. But the iconic package of the newly-restored building, which now re-incorporates certain details on Wright's wish-list, such as real ivy in the interior planters, becomes the omnipresent centerpiece (or perhaps "spiral-piece?") of the show.

The show faced the challenge of any major architectural exhibition: what you might call "drawing fatigue." Architectural drawings can present challenges of abstract obscurity to the general visitor - though the Guggenheim has been presenting such challenges in various media since its founding as a definitive collection of "nonobjective" art. The curatorial team for
Within Outward combat this obscurity with a number of models, both old and new, traditional and digital, that help illustrate Wright's design concepts from the relatively utilitarian (the Jacobs I Usonian house) to the utterly fantastic (Wright's expansive master plan for Baghdad). The Jacobs I model is a meticulously detailed tour de force, with the various layers of the house "exploded" in a way that emphasizes the modular and automatic nature of the Usonian concept. Other models, created by Situ Studio, offer ghostly abstractions of some of Wright's utopian, unbuilt designs, such as the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective and Planetarium and the Huntington Hartford Sports Club. Some of these make bold use of the unique space of the museum: the Gordon Strong model hugs the slope of the spiral ramp, and the Huntington Hartford model is boldly cantilevered from one of the reinforced concrete buttresses, reflecting the bracket tree fungus inspiration for the saucer-like cantilevers of the Sports Club itself.

These amazing models aside, the exhibition offers a rare, perhaps once-in-a lifetime opportunity to scrutinize over two hundred masterful drawings from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives. These often-reproduced but rarely-exhibited drawings are works of art unto themselves, from the crisp graphic quality of the Wasmuth portfolio renderings, to the radiant color and contrasts of the night views of the Pittsburgh Point Park Civic Center and Lenkurt Electric Company projects. Some of these drawings offer unexpected glimpses of history, as with the panoramic elevations of Taliesin West, drawn on Kraft paper during particularly lean times for the Taliesin Fellowship. One of the most stunning drawings in the exhibition is Wright's perspective of the "Mile High" Illinois building, his colossal skyscraper-to-end-all-skyscrapers proposal. The original drawing is over 95 inches high, its looming scale lost in reproductions. This rendering of one of Wright's most fantastic projects is enhanced further by digital animation that sizes-up various well-known skyscrapers and world monuments with the gargantuan Mile High, then takes the viewer on a dizzying elevator ride to the top of the virtual building, 5,280 feet above Chicago.

Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward is only on view through August 23, so consider hopping that JetBlue flight to New York to catch this rare opportunity for total immersion in the world of Frank Lloyd Wright. The exhibition catalog alone is destined to become one of the great tomes in the Wright Studies bookshelf, but the exhibition invites visitors to explore the rich spaces wrought by Wright's oeuvre, displayed in the Golden-anniversary reliquary of Wright's last - and most audacious - building.

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