Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

All About Frank

RIGHT: The Mile-High Illinois, Chicago. Project, 1956. LEFT: Unveiling the 22-foot-high visualization of The Mile-High Illinois at the October 16, 1956 press conference in Chicago. Courtesy FLW Foundation Archives.

MoMA tries to wrest the spotlight from the “world famous architect,” but the player always wins

In 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright appeared on the television show What’s My Line? On the show, a panel of once-upon-a-time celebrities ask a mystery guest yes-or-no questions in order to figure out who he is and what he does. We know who Wright is, of course, and there’s anticipatory pleasure even in the decisive way he chalks his name on the show’s blackboard to start: It is less script than graphic, less name than geometry. If Wright was going to be on a game show, he was going to do it properly, though he only admits to having “watched one of the shows with interest.”

Problem was, Wright had already done his job too thoroughly. Under questioning, he reveals that he is self-employed, that he uses his hands, that clients frequently come to him two at a time. “Is this service for both men and women?” one panelist asks. “I like to think so,” says Wright dryly. One lady finally catches on, wondering if he could be in a profession “such as design, or architecture, such as Frank Lloyd Wright?”

“Wright and architecture had, for many Americans, become synonymous,” writes Barry Bergdoll in the catalog for the Museum of Modern Art’s latest Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition, “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive,” which he co-curated with Jennifer Gray. Problem is, for many Americans, Frank Lloyd Wright and architecture still are synonymous. Even the Museum of Modern Art— with whom Wright famously feuded after the 1932 International Style exhibition dared to put his work alongside that of younger, less famous, European architects—has gone back to the Wright well more than a dozen times, giving him solo shows in 1940, 1962 and 1994, as well as spotlighting the acrobatic Fallingwater (1938), both earth-hugging Taliesins (1947), and his radical workplace for Johnson Wax (1952).