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November 13, 1996

Frank Lloyd Wright Exhibition To Open November 14

Frank Lloyd Wright, considered by many to be America's greatest and most influential architect, will be the subject of a major exhibition at the Library of Congress, on view from November 14, 1996 through February 15, 1997.

"Frank Lloyd Wright: Designs for an American Landscape, 1922- 1932" will focus on five unbuilt projects through which Wright redefined his architecture and articulated "a unique dialogue between structure and land," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. With this exhibition, "we hope to bring a more widespread rethinking of Wright's work, so that the next generation of architects will be better able to appraise his ability to generate new ideas," Dr. Billington added.

The exhibition, organized by the Library of Congress, the Canadian Center for Architecture, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, was curated by Professor David DeLong of the University of Pennsylvania. The exhibition is unique in several respects.

  • It is the first to use original materials to examine a single theme in Wright's work. This new theme, embodied in the five projects, explores and celebrates boldly the American West and the defining presence of the car and the roadway.
  • This exhibition also reunites drawings and original materials from the three organizing institutions and other repositories and collections: many of these drawings will be on display for the first time.
  • Hypothetical study models of each site were developed from the surviving drawings and from information gathered from historical road maps, topographical surveys, photographs and site visits to each locale.
  • To further supplement Wright's own drawings and make the form of the projects more fully understandable, three computer models were prepared for the exhibition. These computer models enable visitors to "visit" the location and the unbuilt structure and also depict how movement toward and through each envisioned project was an essential component of Wright's newly enlarged vision of landscape.

Each of the five projects in the exhibition is a singular and bold creation, a prototype for a new architecture.

The Doheny Ranch Development

The first of the projects, conceived in 1923, was a speculative scheme for a suburban development to be built on the Doheny Ranch, a long, narrow parcel of open land that lay at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains, in what is today Beverly Hills. Wright envisioned the entire Doheny project as a cohesive architectural landscape, with buildings and roadways joined so persuasively to the site's steep, undulating ridges as to enlarge the grandeur of the natural setting.

The design respected local vegetation, and accommodated the automobile in both spatial and architectural terms. According to DeLong, "it was nothing less than an idealized prototype for what American suburbs might have become but did not...Fixity and mobility were to be joined in a single composition that anticipated, in both scale and function, aspirations of the late 20th century."

Lake Tahoe Summer Colony

During the summer of 1923, Wright embarked on a second, speculative venture, this one for a summer resort colony on Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe, California. The site included some 200 acres at the southwest corner of the lake. The focal point of the development was an inn that Wright located, in romantic isolation, on the lake's only island. David DeLong notes that "mobility was again fundamental to his concept," even though this time the mobility was not that of the automobile or the road but the houses themselves. Wright proposed that the individual cabins be floating structures which, like houseboats, could be moved about the bay "intensifying the visual effects" and varying the views of the occupants. Wright failed to interest the site's owner in his ideas, and they remained unrealized. The site, now a state park, has remained largely untouched.

The A.M. Johnson Desert Compound

The third of Wright's projects records his response to yet a different terrain: the American desert. Developed in 1923-24, this design was a residential compound for insurance tycoon A.M. Johnson, and was to be built along Grapevine Canyon, overlooking the northern end of Death Valley. Wright envisioned a series of corbeled concrete-block walls that stretched almost a thousand feet across the site, and were to unify the disparate hills into a single composition. The design incorporated existing structures, new roadways and extensive fountains. At one end of the compound a new house was to be erected, angled to provide stunning views of Death Valley and elevated to intensify an extraordinary sense of arrival. Dr. DeLong suggests that, in designing the roadway, Wright seems to have adapted the concept of the Japanese stroll garden to accommodate a series of views from an automobile. Johnson, fearful of the ultimate cost and unsatisfied with the overall design, rejected it and turned to another architect to create what is known today as Scotty's Castle.

Gordon Strong Automobile Objective

In 1924, Gordon Strong, a wealthy Chicago businessman, met with Wright to discuss the development of Sugar Loaf Mountain "as an objective for short motor trips" primarily from Washington and Baltimore both nearby. In 1925, Wright conceived the building as a spiral at which the roadway, leading up the mountain, ended. He placed the building in such a way that it appeared to complete the mountain. Under the dome of the structure, Wright proposed a planetarium, "surrounded," Dr. DeLong says, "by a circular gallery containing acquaria and natural history exhibits." The three routes for descent, two for pedestrians and one for automobiles, were surrounded by a "dazzling array of lounges and restaurants" and bridges linked walkways giving visitors ready access to the adjoining terrain. The design celebrated mobility; no spiral structure before this had been so boldly conceived nor so fully integrated with its surroundings. Strong, however, rejected the design, feeling it inappropriate and built a more conventional park. The site remains largely unchanged today.

San Marcos-in-the Desert

Of the five projects in the exhibition, the one that came closest to being realized was San Marcos-in-the Desert, a luxury resort hotel to be built in Arizona for Alexander J. Chandler. Situated at the base of the Salt River Mountains, the resort was to be approached along an angled roadway. Automobiles were to drive up, then under, the building, along the diagonal line of a natural ravine. As in the A.M. Johnson Compound, the building was to bridge this ravine, joining separate parts of the land into a single composition, and unifying the building, roadway and terrain. The angles of the existing contours of the desert itself suggested triangular shapes to Wright, which he proposed to build with his recently developed textile-block method. Chandler responded favorably to Wright's design and working drawings were completed in 1929. However, the stock market crash in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression doomed the project, and it was never realized.

Although many of Wright's major designs during this era went unrealized, they had a profound effect on his later work and on the work of other architects. With these prototypes, Wright's integration of building and site allowed him to develop his understanding of the fundamental connection between architecture and nature.

An electronic version of the show can be accessed through the Library's World Wide Web site starting November 20, 1996 . The address is http://www.loc.gov/.

A catalog accompanying the exhibition, published by Harry N. Abrams Inc., is available for $29.95. This 208-page soft cover book features 179 illustrations, including 93 plates in full color. It is available from the Library's Sales Shop.

The exhibition will be in the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress, and will be open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

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PR 96-110
11/13/96
ISSN 0731-3527

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