Where Was Jim Crow? Living in Frank Lloyd Wright’s America
In Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive—a recent MoMA exhibit celebrating the master architect’s prolific output and larger-than-life persona—one of the side rooms featured vintage television clips, including Wright’s humorous appearance in 1956 on What’s My Line? The tagline under Wright’s name read “World Famous Architect.” Nowadays it could be amended to say “World’s Most Famous Architect.”
Indeed, Wright towers over American architecture the way Shakespeare towers over English theater. Not only is he a household name, nearly six decades after his death, but Wright’s work encapsulates the sweeping ethos of his profession in the 20th century: grandiose schemes, technological advancement, boundless expansion. Yet many of the practical, humanistic housing challenges faced by U.S. citizens during that time and since—especially people in dense urban areas—seem to lie somewhere beyond Wright’s grand visions.
This dichotomy lies at the heart of a revelatory exhibit called Living in America: Frank Lloyd Wright, Harlem, and Modern Housing, on view through December 17 at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery in Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for the Arts. In a series of side-by-side presentations, the show contrasts community-planning projects conceived by Wright—most notably his Broadacre City development concept (below), which was never realized but generated several spinoffs by him and others—with actual urban housing projects built in Harlem in the early- to mid-20th century, when Wright was dreaming up his shared utopias.
The collected work is a striking display of unbuilt schemes vs. built reality—as well as a tale of two city classes. (Read: black and white.) “Wright designed worlds that were largely—not entirely but largely—worlds without black people, without people of color,” noted Dianne Harris of the University of Utah in her keynote speech for a recent two-day symposium centered on the Living in America exhibit. “There is no question about Wright’s extraordinary architectural accomplishments. But if we are to examine more deeply his sense of what it meant to live in America, we have to ask new questions that pertain to our history of our country in Wright’s time—and how the answers we’ve discovered may matter in the present.”
Wright’s Broadacre City model (above) was finished in 1935 (with help from his architecture-school apprentices, the Taliesin Fellows, who have their own storied history). First unveiled at New York City’s Rockefeller Center, the model depicts an orderly, pristine community within a frame representing four square miles. It’s meant to be both agrarian and egalitarian: ”no private ownership of public needs,” Wright’s description claims, and “no public ownership of private needs.” But with its emphasis on cars for transport, decentralization of society, and private single-house ownership, the plan also represented Wright’s version of a newly sprouting phenomenon: suburbia.
Wright kept tinkering with the unfinished concept throughout his life; it pops up in later work both built (the modest Suntop Homes in Ardmore, PA) and unbuilt (Cooperative Homesteads near Detroit, The Living City in Anywhere, USA). “Wright noted that the Broadacre scheme could be replicated all over the country,” Harris said in her lecture, which she pointedly titled “Where was Jim Crow? Living in Wright’s America.” In this realm, the burgeoning growth of nearby metropolises were to be kept at bay—not to mention their socio-economic diversity. “Wright never talked or wrote about race explicitly in any of his work or writings for cities,” Harris said. “He didn’t have to. Instead, he employed in the scheme and in his writings about it every spatial code for whiteness that existed at the time.”
Meanwhile back in Harlem, New York City began responding to its ongoing public-housing crisis with the creation of the Harlem River Houses (above), conceived in 1936 and finished the following year. Funded by the Public Works Administration segment of the New Deal, the project relied on a team of architects including Joseph Louis Wilson Jr., the first African-American to graduate from Columbia University’s School of Architecture. With its affordable rental rates, axial symmetry, and user-friendly features—community rooms, a library and nursery, street-facing commercial spaces—it epitomized spacial efficiency and collaborative existence. Living in America includes subsequent creations ranging from the Riverton Houses (finished in 1948) and the Manhattanville Houses (completed in 1961).
On the flip side, the Harlem River design set the template for a host of public-housing projects throughout New York City that have since become notorious for their lack of racial diversity (Stuyvesant Town and General Grant Houses have widely divergent populations); their congestion, violence and crime; and their generic appearance—which is regularly bemoaned as much as, say, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum is lauded for its visionary splendor.
Living in America attempts to show both sides of the picture, at least in the genesis stages of the work. It’s presented in the Lenfest Center for the Arts, a Wright-esque futuristic building on 129th Street (designed by a team including the Renzo Piano Building Workshop) just blocks away from some of the Harlem projects depicted in the show. These days Harlem itself, always architecturally rich, has become one of the city’s hot spots for gentrification—a new Williamsburg, Bed Stuy or Astoria. The neighborhoods, they are a-changin’.
But what the exhibit brings out is the divergent roots of housing philosophies that have led to divides along lines of class and race, which still stubbornly persist. “The consequences of past visions define our racially separate living arrangements to this day,” Harris said. “So it is up to our generation to remedy them, whether or not we fault particular historic figures. The profession of architecture and its practitioners bear some responsibility for where we are today—for Charlottesville, for Fergeson, for the deep inequalities that are inscribed in the cities and suburbs of our country.”
Featured image, via ArchDaily. The other photos courtesy of the Lenfest Center for the Arts.