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Milwaukee museum looks at organic side of Wright

MILWAUKEE -- The Milwaukee Art Museum is taking a new look at Frank Lloyd Wright on the 100th anniversary of his Taliesin home in Spring Green, with an exhibit showing the organic side of the prolific architect that features scale models, furniture and photos as well as video footage and more than 30 drawings that have never before been publicly displayed.

"Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century" starts with urban plans and a model that he traveled with nationally, trying to promote his vision of a community integrated into the landscape. Wright, who designed houses, corporate and government buildings, libraries, museums and churches in addition to furniture and lighting, saw his plans as the antithesis to cities being too condensed.

"He was very concerned about conservation of materials, conservation of energy, environment, landscape, all the things which are now becoming so pertinent in a planet, which we seem to be slowly -- bit by bit -- destroying," said Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, director of the archives at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Arizona, who worked with Wright before the architect died in 1959. "It seems like a good time to remind people that there was a good way in which architecture helped people live better and live in harmony not only with themselves but the planet they are living on."

Wright built his Broadacre City model in the 1930s, based on his book "The Disappearing City." He revised and expanded the text in 1958 with "The Living City." Drawings from the book were used by a German museum and the foundation to produce a model in the 1990s. It's the first time the models have been shown together, and will likely be the last time the Broadacre model will travel because of its fragile condition, said Brady Roberts, chief curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The idea was the culmination of Wright's work, but never came to fruition.

Wright was one of the first big-name architects to really care about making sure the building and environment were in harmony, said architectural historian Jack Quinan. The architect first used the term "organic architecture" in 1894.

"Wright's work has endured and is going to be relevant and continue to be relevant largely because of his organic theory -- his interest in creating an American architecture that derives from nature, you might say crossed with geometry," said Quinan, who's on the board of directors for the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.

He noted the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, N.Y., a prairie house Wright designed around 1903, which was considered odd then. It has a south facade where the sun is somewhat blocked in summer but streams into the house in winter. The house also has sun traps -- a series of glass plates so the summer sunshine bounces off the glass and up into the house indirectly.

Taliesin, in his hometown of Spring Green, Wis., was Wright's longest ongoing architectural work, as he kept changing it for nearly 50 years. To break down barriers between the interior and exterior, Wright used local limestone and mixed sand from the river into his plaster. He used tall windows in the living room to provide a view of the rolling hills. The windows also provided natural light, which is diffused by the overhanging roof so the house remains cool.

The show also looks at one of Wright's lifelong pursuits, which was to provide affordable housing to low-income residents. He designed the American-System Built Houses -- compact, geometric homes assembled onsite with factory-cut materials to reduce costs. During the Great Depression, Wright started developing "Usonian" homes, which were also designed to control costs and had carports but no basements or attics.

Roberts said the exhibition comes as people are changing perspectives due to the financial downturn: Maybe bigger isn't always better.

"So it's interesting now to look at Frank Lloyd Wright and how prescient he was to say, "No, you can have a beautiful house that is actually very small in terms of a footprint but it can feel quite spacious by being opened up to nature,'" he said. "This is very practical and economical, but also it's another thing we've lost in suburban planning, with sort of homogenous cookie-cutter houses."


If you go

Milwaukee Art Museum: 700 N. Art Museum Drive, Milwaukee; or (414) 224-3200. "Frank Lloyd Wright Show: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century," through May 15. Museum open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays until 8 p.m. Adults, $14; students and seniors, $12; children 12 and under, free.

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