Wright's ideas: he knew what people really wanted

THE great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, celebrated in a traveling exhibit here, was as unbudgeable as the earthquake-proof Imperial Hotel he built in Japan. When he designed a building and wanted it built, not even a third of a century got in the way. He designed a tower in 1929 for St. Mark's in the Bowery section of New York City, but the depression crashed in on his plans, and it was never built there. Then in 1954 a businessman named H.C. Price, from Bartlesville, Okla., came to Wright and said he wanted a two-story office building and a place to park 10 trucks.

Wright is said to have told Price: ``Mr. Price, I'm going to give you the building I've been trying to build for 35 years.'' When the building, called the Price Tower, opened, Wright gave a lecture there and was asked what his first consideration for a client was. He answered, ``To give the client what he wants.'' At which point Price spoke up and said: ``Well, now, all I wanted was a place to park 10 trucks and a two-story office building, and I got a 19-story tower.'' Wright answered, ``Hal, you didn't know what you wanted.''

Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, director of archives of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, tells that story with relish as an example of Wright's persistent dedication to his architectural vision. Mr. Pfeiffer is co-curator of the exhibit ``Frank Lloyd Wright: In the Realm of Ideas,'' which opened here recently at the National Museum of American History.

It's taken another 35 years for the world to see an exhibition house designed by Wright in 1955 but not built until this year. His full-scale Usonian Automatic Exhibition House has been assembled in 10 days on Constitution Avenue, smack in front of the museum's glass and marble entrance. The 1,800-square-foot portable house is part of a tour of six American cities by this exhibit, which also includes 160 works, among them some original Wright drawings on exhibition for the first time, as well as color photo enlargements of his architectural projects, details, and renderings; Wright's designs for furnishings and decorative arts; and large-scale architectural models.

Museumgoers in Washington's sweltering summer heat find the Usonian Automatic Exhibition House air-conditioned, inviting, and comfortable. Rather than an austere architectural statement, it is a livable-looking, cozy home done in warm cherry wood and natural stone. It contains contemporary furniture in Wright designs that use tones of persimmon, green, turquoise, and earth shades. ``Usonian'' was Wright's word for modern America, and ``automatic'' indicated a system in which basic building components could be assembled by virtually anyone, according to Taliesin Associated Architects, which constructed the house from Wright's design.

In the Washington show, which continues through September, nearly one-third of the materials assembled for this traveling exhibition are not on view, for ``space reasons,'' according to its co-curator, art historian Gerald Nordland. ``Almost all the objects, stained glass windows, and wonderful furniture'' Wright designed from 1895 to 1955 aren't seen here, he says, though everything will be used in all the other shows.

When asked about why a condensed exhibit appears here, Roger Kennedy, director of the National Museum of American History, said, ``Only a small portion of the show that was in Dallas will not play here, because we are using those portions of the show we think are germane to our audience. ... We have commitments and obligations to other subjects. ... What we do is allocate to any subject that amount of space, time, and money that we have for that purpose. It's always a trade-off. We're not an architectural museum. We're a history museum. And it [the exhibit] wouldn't be anywhere if we hadn't helped it a lot.''

As a former student of Wright's who has published 20 books on the architect and is co-editor with Nordland of the show's catalog, Pfeiffer is full of stories about Wright. Like the one about the time Wright's mother was visiting, and he said he wanted ``to rearrange her room a bit.'' ``She said, `No. Frank, please don't.' He said, `I'll just make a few changes,' adding, `Mother, I'm about to give you free what I charge thousands for.' She finally said all right. He tore the whole room apart; he tore a wall down, put in new doors. That was his way of arranging her room,'' says Pfeiffer with a smile.

More than half the architectural design photos on exhibit show buildings that were never built - that were left, as the exhibit title underlines, ``In the Realm of Ideas.''

So, while the visitor sees material from the most famous of Wright's works - Fallingwater, the Edgar J. Kaufmann House in Mill Run, Pa.; the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, the S.C. Johnson Company buildings in Racine, Wis.; and the architect's winter home, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Ariz. - there are also glimpses of what might have been.

The exhibition will go to the Center for the Fine Arts, Miami, in December, and then Chicago, Scottsdale, and San Diego.

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