Approaching the exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal at the Museum of Modern Art, you might feel skeptical. A show about Frank Lloyd Wright, urban designer? Give me a break. You mean, the prime mover of that suburban creation myth, Broadacre City? It isn’t called “Prairie Style” for nothing. Still, don’t put it past MoMA—after all, they recently strained to argue that Le Corbusier cared about the landscape.
Sure enough, the first exhibit you’ll face is Wright’s model of Broadacre City, all 160 square feet of it. A vast plain of wood, gridded out with roads, farmland, single-family homes, industrial buildings, even tidily crosshatched blocks of forest—it’s more rural-looking than you might remember. Then, interspersed throughout the landscape, you’ll notice several incongruous high-rises, each as isolated as a prairie tree. Here’s where Wright’s urban ignorance steered him wrong, you might think. But to understand the place of these towers in Broadacre City, you have to investigate the drawings ringing the perimeter of the gallery.
Wooden model of Wright's Broad Acre City Project, 1934-35.
Model of Broadacre City under construction by Taliesin Fellows, 1934-35.
“The theme of this show is extremely simple,” said Barry Bergdoll, the acting chief curator of MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, at the press opening. He laid one arm flat and pointed the other upright, on X and Y axes. “It’s just this.” For Wright, that is, the horizontal city and the vertical tower are inextricably linked.
The story starts with Wright’s unbuilt proposals for the Louis Sullivan-inspired San Francisco Call Building and the vaguely Art Deco, glass-clad National Life Insurance Company headquarters in Chicago. Two fairly standard skyscrapers. Either would have made a fine, if overly monumental, contribution to its city.
San Francisco Call Building proposal, 1912.
Then, like many architects of his time, Wright began thinking beyond architecture, to the city itself. Dismayed by urban congestion, in 1926 he proposed idealized skyscraper zoning regulations that would have interspersed flat-topped towers with 24-lane (!) highways and elevated pedestrian walkways that wouldn’t feel out of place in contemporary Pudong. (Or Her.)
Wright's proposal for St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie Towers, New York, 1927-31.
St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie Tower, New York, 1927-31. Interior perspective, section, and plans of the living room and balcony floors.
Then came his seminal project for St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie, in New York’s East Village. An obvious riff on the “Tower in the Park” concept, it would have placed as many as six pinwheel towers on the church grounds at Stuyvesant Street and Second Avenue. The Great Depression killed the proposal, and perhaps in a fit of pique, Wright seized a rendering of one of the towers, erased the urban context, and replaced it with trees and fields.
Voilà! The Tower in the Prairie was born.
Grouped Towers, Chicago, 1930. Perspective.
Grouped Towers, Chicago, 1930. Plan of the pedestal.
The remaining projects detail Wright’s continuing attempts to build a variation of the St. Mark’s plan. Twice he succeeded, with the Research Laboratory Tower for S. C. Johnson & Son in Racine, Wisconsin, and with the H.C. Price Company Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
Both buildings are perverse. To make economic sense, skyscrapers typically require scarce, expensive land: the higher the property value, the taller the tower. But in Racine and Bartlesville, land is plentiful and relatively cheap. And yet Wright convinced his clients to build unnecessary towers. Why?
Model of the Price Company Tower under construction by Taliesin Fellows.
Johnson and Price understood their towers not as a means to maximize land value, but as a way to make a statement. Better to be the only tall building in town, so no one else could steal their thunder. Wright was light-years ahead of his contemporaries in siting tall buildings in small towns, but today that “look at me!” strategy pops up in cities as diverse as Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Changsha, China; and Midland, Texas.
Speaking of Jeddah, Wright’s Mile-High Illinois tower proposal, depicted in the exhibit, bears more than a passing resemblance to Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill’s Kingdom Tower, set to rise in Saudi Arabia.
Mile High, Chicago 1956. Perspective.
Kingdom Tower. Image courtesy Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill
On the other end of the spectrum, for so-called “shrinking cities” like Detroit, perhaps Broadacre City’s interweaving of homes and one-acre farms—too small for Monsanto-sized industrial agriculture—posits an urban future based on small-scale artisanal farming.
“I suppose,” Bergdoll said, “in a world where you simultaneously have farming in downtown Detroit, and new skyscrapers in the Arabian and South Asian world, suddenly Wright doesn’t seem so much a quirky figure.”
But those one-acre lots also embody a tension between individualism and control. Wright proposed that those small farms be given to residents rent-free—contemporary Americans would scream "socialism!" at the very idea. Unlike sprawling communities like Houston, Broadacre City depends on centralized planning that clashes with America’s residual frontier ethos.
As Bergdoll states, “This ambivalence, tension, contradiction, which I’m not sure at the very end for Wright really was a contradiction, is really what the show is about.”
Model of Broadacre City, 1934-35. Photo by Roy E. Petersen
Architects get called “artists” more than they should. Good art embraces ambiguity, conflict, and paradox, qualities which can be antithetical to a well-functioning building. But those qualities are exactly what you’ll find at this focused, insightful exhibition. With all his contradictions and unresolved tensions, Frank Lloyd Wright elevated urban design to an art.
This exhibit was curated by Bergdoll and Carole Ann Fabian, director of Columbia University’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, to commemorate MoMA’s and Columbia’s recent joint acquisition of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, from which most of the material was culled.