Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on September 3, 2009

Guggenheim Museum; New York, New York

Reviews of lectures, exhibitions, and events of note

Guggenheim Museum; New York, New York; May 15–August 23, 2009

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic building, the Guggenheim is hosting its first exhibition of his work. Featuring 64 projects — both built and unrealized — this exhibition offers an intimate view into his design process through 200-plus original drawings as well as newly commissioned models and digital animations.

According to Phil Allsopp, president/CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Wright completed over 1,100 designs; the archive is vast enough to supply an exhibition of this size annually for 110 years. The curators chose what they believe are Wright’s best drawings, and the usual suspects are in attendance (Unity Temple, the Taliesens, and of course the Guggenheim itself), but his unbuilt projects, many on display for the first time, are perhaps some of the most fascinating.

Of his design for the San Marcos-in-the- Desert Resort, a victim of the 1929 crash, Wright said, “I have found that when a scheme develops beyond a normal pitch of excellence, the hand of fate strikes it down.” This held true for the captivating Gordon Strong Automobile Objective and Planetarium, the hand of fate being an unhappy client who declined to build it. Its form was an upside-down predecessor to the Guggenheim — modeled in section for the exhibition, complete with twinkling stars. Also stunning are Wright’s drawings and a new topographic model of the Huntington Hartford Sports Club/Play Resort that daringly cantilevers from the museum’s wall.

While visitors of the Guggenheim often take the elevator and then meander down its spiraling ramp, this exhibition is arranged in a loosely chronological order from the rotunda floor upward. It is only fitting to culminate at the top, mirroring the path of Wright’s career and legacy.

Image caption: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; 1943–59. Ink and pencil on tracing paper. © 2009 The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona.

Directed by David M. Edwards; Produced by EMotion Pictures, 2008; DVD, 82 minutes

Sprawling from Grace

A somber mood prevails throughout Sprawling from Grace, Driven to Madness, a primer on the urgent need to reform our culture’s automobile-dependent ways. A who’s who of national visionaries in energy, transit, and sustainable development tell the story, with appearances by some familiar Bostonians (David Dixon, Michael Dukakis, Tad Read).

Attempts to lighten the mood with nostalgic, black-and-white clips of the American love affair with the automobile and suburban life instead leave one wistful for simpler times. Though it tries, the film fails to deliver the emotional weight of a call to action.

More unfortunately, it neglects the ready availability of solutions. Bad news is emphasized over the good despite the positive data now emerging from cities (such as Portland, Oregon) in the forefront of the sprawl battle; images of today’s success stories — walkable shopping streets, mid-rise districts with transit stops — are fewer and less compelling than they could be. The Scared Straight model is indeed scary, but fear is not a reliable motivator.

Harvard Graduate School of Design; April 3–5, 2009

One subtext of this conference became clear almost immediately when keynote speaker Rem Koolhaas cursed architects for having no answers. The message was repeated over three days: Attempts to solve design problems by focusing only on architecture are inadequate and ineffective responses to real urban problems in this urban century. Design practice as it has been is over. Design practice must change in order to address pressing issues of climate change, social and economic equity, and health. The way forward was not at all clear, although the range of presenters — architects, historians, humanists, theologians, bureaucrats, academics, agronomists, artists, scientists, inventors, landscape architects, planners, politicians, a university president, a dean, and a mayor — symbolized the core idea that multiple disciplines working together are essential.

Its meaning elusive, the term “ecological urbanism” held an umbrella over everything “sustainable” while emphasizing the urban. The varieties of urbanism referenced over three days ranged from “ethical” and “landscape” to “reconsidered,” “dynamic,” and “user-generated.” The conference was extremely well planned — including an exhibition, forthcoming book, and website with podcasts — yet it conveyed a messy sense of confusion and incoherence, very much a work in progress. The need to craft a new language seemed to be another subtext. Perhaps the unadorned term “urbanism” is an adequate place to start and a useful focus as thinkers come to understand the complexity of the city’s dynamics while being constrained by realizations about natural-resource limits and damage to the environment.

It is good news that the powers that be, including now Harvard as well as the City of Boston, recognize both the need and the opportunity to make important changes to the status quo and to embrace new knowledge, with the understanding that cities and regions must be part of the solution. Alex Felson of Yale University asked the best question: “Is there a way architects can and will take in data and processes of ecology and make a difference?” As the conference made clear, the answer will require architects to adopt a broader stance as engaged creative thinkers and activists finding new ways to bring the knowledge to bear across disciplines, collaborating with peers in every field. It won’t be easy, as Andrea Branzi cautioned: “Interdisciplinarity is not a comfortable affair.”

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