NEW YORK — WHEN Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was a tot, his favorite pastime was building with wooden blocks. As an adult, from the 1880s until his death, the architect designed nearly 500 buildings based on the cubes, spheres, cylinders, and pyramids of his toy blocks. Until May 10 at the Museum of Modern Art, a huge retrospective of Wright's work displays the astonishing invention of America's master builder.
Of course, no exhibition can substitute for experiencing Wright's buildings first-hand. To get a sense of how he employed technological innovations and abstracted the underlying geometry of nature in his designs, one need only visit the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1959). Its poured concrete ramp, sculptural form based on a chambered nautilus spiral, and soaring interior space comprise one of the most radical achievements of 20th-century architecture.
In contrast to immersion in the three-dimensional spaces he created, viewing the exhibition's scale models, sketches, and floor plans seems, well, flat. For those without access to Wright buildings, however, the exhibition provides a pilgrimage through his artistic metamorphosis.
The show begins with Wright's apprenticeship to Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, who wrenched America out of its slavish imitation of historical styles. In the 1880s, when Victorian homes were likely to resemble Gothic castles, Sullivan, and later Wright, called for an indigenous architecture that reflected the American character and native environment.
As an independent artist, Wright provided a full-blown template for such a new style in the Susan Lawrence Dana House (1902-4) in Springfield, Ill. In this unified design, where Wright dictated not only the structure, but also materials, ornament, and furniture, Wright ``broke the box.'' Instead of a warren of small rooms that was typical of homes then, the open floor plan creates a flow of space from room to room. A barrel-vaulted ceiling coordinates with the arched entry and domed windows, a departure from conventional right angles.
When Wright unveiled his signature Prairie House in Chicago's Robie House (1908-10), his predilection for horizontal lines became supremely evident. Like a stately ocean liner, each architectural element surges forward from stem to stern. With the thrusting planes of projecting eaves and low-slung roof, Wright defined a new vocabulary for what would become the quintessential suburban home.
His legacy to the single-family dwelling includes: fluid floor plans, a central hearth, the carport, cathedral ceilings, ranch-style homes, and built-in furnishings.
He championed the concept of home ownership for the middle class in decentralized communities served by automobiles. In the 1920s, the populist Wright offered quality houses at low cost using decorative concrete blocks. In the 1930s, he offered the masses modular, prefab homes he called Usonian.
Wright also pioneered the principle of ``organic'' architecture, where building and site fuse harmoniously, as in his masterpiece, Fallingwater (1934-37), near Mill Run, Penn. This extraordinary house, constructed of local sandstone and jutting slabs of concrete that echo rocky ledges below, sits directly atop a waterfall.
Two homes the architect built for himself, Taliesin I in Wisconsin (1911-25) and Taliesin West (1937-38) in Arizona, are similar paragons of site-specific design. The former illustrates Wright's dictum that ``no house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it.'' Sited around the crest of a rise, the long, low building almost hugs the hill, growing out of its slope as naturally as a wildflower. In profile, hues, materials, and texture, Taliesin West blends into its desert environment like a chameleon.
Sublimely conceived, Wright's structures often floundered on the shoals of practicality. His flattened roofs leak, the daring cantilevers sag, and his squarish wooden furniture pains the human body. Clients despaired that Wright's budgets were as wildly underestimated as those of Pentagon contractors.
Despite these flaws, when asked in court to identify the world's best architect, Wright named himself. He defended his immodesty by saying, ``I was under oath, wasn't I?''
In homage to his unfailing originality over the course of seven decades, a jury of architecture historians might well return the same verdict.