The great architect Frank Lloyd Wright was hyper-sensitive to the nature of place, like this home built in Wisconsin (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation).

There’s a major new show here at the Guggenheim Museum on the work of America’s greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

If, like this writer, you’re a Wright fan, there’s tons of stuff to look at. No less than 64 of the master’s buildings are here in the form of drawings, models, photos, even computer simulations. The show is a grandma’s attic of Wrightiania, and you’re sure to be fascinated by stuff you’ve never noticed.

If you’re not such a fan, though, and you don’t already know your way around Wright’s work, I’m afraid this exhibit will seem random, confused, and pointless.

The occasion for the show is a double anniversary. Wright died at 91 in the same year the Guggenheim opened, 50 years ago, in 1959. The museum, one of his most famous creations, has just completed a massive $30 million, three-year renovation.

It must have seemed like a great idea. But an anniversary isn’t an agenda, and this show doesn’t have one. Instead it settles for rehashing every cliché you’ve ever heard about Wright.

Start with the title: “Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward.” The idea here is that Wright designed his buildings by first planning the interior spaces, and only then shaping the exterior appearance around them. Well, hey, sure he did that. In some of his early houses, indoor space pinwheels outward from the center, morphing into porches and courtyards and gardens and binding indoors and outdoors into a single harmony.

The problem is, Wright spent most of the 20th century bragging about how he was doing exactly that. This is not an appropriate theme for a new exhibit. It’s an old-fashioned view of an artist who in truth is as relevant today as ever.

I’d rather have seen an exhibit, for instance, titled “Frank Lloyd Wright: Environmentalist.” Wright believed in building from local materials, not from costly stuff shipped halfway around the world as is common today. Often his buildings grow from the trees and rocks of the site they’re built on.

In a world that today is sinking into universal sameness, Wright was hyper-sensitive to the nature of place. He built two houses for himself, both of them in this show. The one in Wisconsin is as different from the one in Arizona as the northern forest is different from the southwestern desert. Each is carefully attuned to the local site and the climate they live in. And the one near Phoenix, Taliesin West, is an especially masterful example of sun control by natural means – surely a lesson for a world that is wasting its energy resources.

The yawn-provoking theme, though, is only the beginning of problems with this exhibit. It’s a poor fit, for example, in the Guggenheim interior, which, of course, consists mainly of one endless sloping curving ramp. The heart of the Wright show consists of drawings, more than 200 of them. These are laid in glass vitrines, sometimes horizontal and sometimes tilted up like an old-fashioned drawing board. Rectangular tables on a curving ramp are awkward and they ignore the museum Wright actually intended. Wright designed the Guggenheim primarily for paintings and sculptures, which would be displayed on the vertical walls of the ramp (and skylit in his original conception). The museum works well when it’s used that way, especially for artists such as Miro, Kandinsky, and Calder who employ bold colors that carry across the space of the atrium and become part of the architecture.


Robert Campbell
Boston Globe