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Renewing Wright

Contemporary architects are challenged to create new designs to complement two Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces.





Above left and clockwise: The Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York; The Price Tower Arts Center in Bartlesville, Oklahoma; an art glass panel featuring Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Tree of Life design.

Arguably the greatest American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright remains a powerful force in architecture and design today. Wright’s buildings reflected their place in the landscape, as well as their place in time, which explains his constantly evolving style throughout his extensive career. The Heinz Architectural Center’s new exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright: Renewing the Legacy, which runs from October 1 through January 15, 2006, at Carnegie Museum of Art, explores Wright’s work through the eyes of leading contemporary architects who were challenged to create new designs to complement two of Wright’s masterpieces: the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York, and the H.C. Price Company Office Tower and Apartments in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

“These are key works from opposite ends of a very long career,” says Raymund Ryan, curator of the Heinz Architectural Center. “People visiting this exhibition should look for two themes—geometry and nature—that Wright used in virtually all his works, although they changed tremendously over 50 years.” Renewing the Legacy will present both projects through original drawings, furniture, film, photographs, and—in the case of the Martin House—art glass windows.

A Study in Contrasts
“ This may be the most difficult project I will ever have,” architect Toshiko Mori, chair of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, says of her assignment to design a visitor center for the Darwin D. Martin House complex. The massive Prairie Style house, completed in 1905 for Darwin and Isabelle Martin, was one of Wright’s most ambitious commissions. “When working with a masterpiece, you must be reverential but not completely submissive. As an architect, the stakes are extremely high.”

Mori says the primary question was how to honor Wright’s legacy, yet design a building that stands on its own. Her approach was neither to imitate nor duplicate, but to develop a strategy to contrast her structure with the Wright buildings and to “reintroduce Frank Lloyd Wright in contemporary times.”

“The Darwin Martin House is incredibly complex,” she notes. “I took simplicity as an opposing principle for the visitor center, so that when you enter the Martin House afterwards, you feel inspired by its complexity. It stimulates the minds of visitors to see opposing architectural concepts come together in one complex.”
Playing off the idea of contrast, Mori made the visitor center “diminutive, as opposed to the grandiosity of the house.” She also chose to employ transparent glass walls in stark contrast to the dark and heavy bricks used by Wright. The result is a light-filled interior within her building.

One Complex, Two Concepts
When Frank Lloyd Wright designed the 19-story H. C. Price Company Office Tower and Apartments in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, he described it as “the tree that escaped the crowded forest.” Considered one of his last great works, and one of just two vertical buildings ever to be realized by Wright, the Price Tower today is the centerpiece of the Price Tower Arts Center.

Designed by Wright as a multi-use skyscraper, the tower has been converted into a boutique hotel, restaurant/ bar, arts center, and administrative offices. Architect Wendy Evans Joseph was responsible for the interior conversion of the Inn at Price Tower and Copper Restaurant & Bar, and architect Zaha Hadid is currently developing a new museum building at the base of the tower.

The 2004 laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the internationally acclaimed Hadid is considered one of the most talented practitioners of the art of architecture today. Before beginning the Price Tower project, Hadid contemplated “How might Wright’s original structure and the new building respond to one another?” To answer the question, she studied the existing site and the street grid surrounding it. She then overlaid the lines from Wright’s original plans. The result was a fresh, geometric pattern that bends around the Price Tower, connecting it with a nearby library and performing arts center.

Although Hadid’s design for the Price Tower Arts Center Museum has not yet been built, much has been written about the dramatic, glass-roofed, cantilevered design. Hadid says the 58,000-square-foot building that gently embraces Wright’s tower is “flirting with but not dominating Wright.” Architect and critic Joseph Giovannini wrote in Art in America, “The two architects are visions apart, but the compatibility of the designs resides not only in Hadid’s organic horizontal response to Wright’s vertical spire, but also in the fact that she proposes a building of comparable strength and beauty, without being imitative or overtly contextual. Respecting Wright’s building, she does not surrender to it.”

For the renovation of the Price Tower interior, Wendy Evans Joseph says that she began with Wright’s tree metaphor and developed what she describes as “a parallel design path with a texture of its own,” always paying homage to the building but never imitating Wright. “If the structure is the trunk, I’ve added the softness—the branches and leaves,” she explains. Abstract twigs, leaves, and reeds appear throughout the hotel, on carpets, linens, and furniture.

In true Frank Lloyd Wright tradition, Joseph was involved in every detail of the interior—designing everything from graphics to carpets to hardware. According to Joseph, no other architect had ever done a systematic renovation on a Frank Lloyd Wright building, making her work that much more challenging. “I think this represents a clear and innovative path toward historic renovation,” she says. “ The design is not Wrightian. It’s a highly personal style of my own.”

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