Art & Design
By ROBIN POGREBIN
The Modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t a hoarder. But he did save just about everything — whether a doodle on a Plaza Hotel cocktail napkin of an imagined city on Ellis Island, his earliest pencil sketch of the spiraling Guggenheim Museum or a model of Broadacre City, his utopian metropolis. Since Wright’s death in 1959 those relics have been locked in storage at his former headquarters — Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wis., and Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Now that entire archive is moving permanently to New York in an unusual joint partnership between the Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, where it will become more accessible to the public for viewing and scholarship.
The collection includes more than 23,000 architectural drawings, about 40 large-scale, architectural models, some 44,000 photographs, 600 manuscripts and more than 300,000 pieces of office and personal correspondence. Acquiring the archive of a seminal 20th-century architect is a boon for both the museum and the library.
“It’s just astounding as primary source material,” said Carole Ann Fabian, the Avery Library’s director. “I keep thinking of it as a national treasure.”
The institutions will share equally in stewardship of the collection. The models will live at MoMA, which has extensive conservation and exhibition experience. The museum will display them in periodic presentations and special exhibitions. The papers will be housed at Avery, whose librarians will make them available to researchers and educators starting at the end of next year.
The partnership “becomes a model for us for how we might approach future projects,” said Glenn D. Lowry, MoMA’s director. “We have avoided collecting archives in the past simply because we didn’t have the resources, either physical or financial, to manage them on our own.”
Because there are several hundred Wright buildings worldwide, MoMA often fields calls from homeowners about his original plans — information that Avery can now more easily provide. “It would be nice to not be answering the telephone from the owner of the Frank Lloyd Wright house from 1922 in Madison, Wis.,” said Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of architecture and design at MoMA.
For the archive’s current caretaker, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, it was not an easy decision to part with all of the artifacts. But after two years of weighing options — like whether to start a fund-raising campaign to build new storage buildings — the foundation decided to partner with other institutions.
“It’s what guarantees the deepest impact, the highest level of conservation and access in perpetuity,” said Sean Malone, the foundation’s president and chief executive. “The potential for new audiences far outweighs the personal desire to have it close by.”
The move also transfers the considerable financial burden of keeping up the archive. “As we look several hundred years forward, we didn’t have the facilities or the infrastructure to do what MoMA and Columbia are,” Mr. Malone said, adding that he could not disclose the cost of moving and maintaining the collection, which is being shared by the MoMA and Columbia.
Wright’s furniture and art collection will remain with the foundation, which will also have a role in monitoring the archive. Together the three parties will make up an advisory group to oversee exhibitions, symposiums, events and publications.
Having Wright’s material in New York will also change the way people think and write about him, those involved say, giving them easier access not only to his past work but also to evidence of his enduring influence in areas like suburban expansion.
While Wright is typically thought of as “a lonely genius,” Mr. Bergdoll said, “you move him into the Museum of Modern Art, and he’s dialoguing with Le Corbusier in the company of Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn.”
“This opens up a new frame to put him into the history of architecture at Columbia and the history of modern architecture at MoMA,” Mr. Bergdoll added.
The museum and the library are somewhat overwhelmed by the job ahead of them. Although the archive is in relatively good condition and well organized, certain items need conservation and cataloging. MoMA had to weigh whether it was up to the task and additional expense.
“This came across my desk and I let it sit there for day or two, thinking, ‘Do I want to take on this headache?’ ” Mr. Lowry said. “Then I realized: ‘This is crazy not to do this. This is one of those opportunities that come along once in a lifetime.’ ”
The museum already has the Mies archives. Those of other major architects — Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Aalto — are housed elsewhere. Mr. Lowry said MoMA would raise money specifically for the archive, in addition to using existing funds. Among the gems in that material are drawings for Wright’s Fallingwater, a home cantilevered over a stream in Mill Run, Pa.; the Robie House, a Prairie-style building on the University of Chicago campus; Unity Temple, a Unitarian Universalist church in Oak Park, Ill.; and Taliesin West.
“Fallingwater is arguably the best piece of residential architecture,” said Ms. Fabian of Avery Library. “We have a blueprint set from the Kaufmann family that commissioned the work. Now we will get the original construction drawings, photography and correspondence. They saved every piece of evidence.”
The archive’s architectural models include notable Wright projects like the unrealized St. Mark’s Tower, an East Village apartment complex; the Broadacre City model; Wingspread, a house near Racine, Wis.; and a version of the Guggenheim. Most of these models were not made for clients; they were constructed for MoMA’s retrospective of Wright in 1940. “So in a certain sense,” Mr. Bergdoll said, “they’re coming home.”