Wright: high-riser at heart?

Famed architect had flair for air, too

Architecture

October 24, 2004|By Justin Davidson | Justin Davidson,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK - Frank Lloyd Wright is known as an autocratic genius of the suburbs. Nature was his partner. His villas crouch against the contours of the land, stratifying like geological formations. He assumed that people would approach his creations by car, and he extended the trajectory of travel into his horizontal designs.

But a new exhibit at the Skyscraper Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright: The Vertical Dimension, argues he was also an urban soul, and ached to build into the air.

"One of my missions is to counter the perception that Wright was utterly uninterested in the city," says Hilary Ballon, the architectural historian and Columbia University professor who curated the exhibit.

The show, which runs through Jan. 9, includes Wright's delicate, evocative drawings of a dozen high-rise projects, only two of which were built. Some were fanciful and utopian - the Mile-High Tower, for instance, an upright city that would have risen almost three times higher than the tallest structures on the drawing boards today. Others, like the proposed St. Mark's Towers in New York, were revolutionary but realistic; their construction was derailed by circumstance.

Wright spent 20 years trying to get the St. Mark's apartments built. He finally got the chance in the late 1940s - not in Manhattan but in Bartlesville, Okla. There, Price Tower, an intricate, faceted shaft of copper, concrete and glass, rises out of the paved-over prairie like a luminescent stele.

As a young man, Wright had worked for the early skyscraper virtuoso Louis Sullivan. But he chafed against the technology that had allowed buildings to stretch toward the clouds: the steel frame, encased in a layer of brick or stone.

The commission for St. Mark's had come from William Norman Guthrie, the church's maverick Episcopal rector. He asked Wright to design an apartment building, and with characteristic bravado, the architect did four. Guthrie was entranced, dubious and appalled - and canceled the project.

A decade later, Wright received another commission for a cluster of towers in Washington, D.C., called Crystal Heights, but ran afoul of rigid zoning laws. He envisioned a dense mini-metropolis of 14 towers, promiscuously and presciently mixing apartments, stores and a vast enclosed garage.

"Some people will look at that today and think, `Oh, he hasn't thought about the pedestrian experience at all,'" Ballon says. "But in 1940, it was so forward-looking. While people were flying out of the city to the suburbs, he was trying to make the city more livable and convenient."

The Skyscraper Museum at 39 Battery Place in Manhattan is open Wednesday through Sunday. For more information: 212-968-1961 or skyscraper.org.

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