The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) has filled two rooms on its first floor with the sketches of ingenue architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The exhibition is being conducted in conjunction with Professor Eugene J. Johnson’s spring semester seminar Wright Writing, with 26 plates of Wright’s architectural designs traveling to WCMA from the College’s Chapin Library. Its presence in the College’s hallowed art museum is significant on two fronts: the nature of its content and the nature of the exhibition itself.
Frank Lloyd Wright was perhaps the most prodigious architect of the 21st century, fostering an original and striking brand of building that would shape much of our contemporary landscape. He designed more than 1000 structures and completed 532, all based in his philosophy of organic architecture, which encouraged developing structures in harmony with the human environment. From this philosophy stemmed his original concept of “Usonian” architecture, “Usonian” being an adjective employed in place of “American” in order to denote the particularly contemporary nature of the American landscape and its liberation and independence from past architectural norms.
The works, which are displayed to the right of the museum shop in two narrow rooms so small and indistinct that they could almost be deemed one hallway, overwhelm their understated abode. The two rooms are struck by a thick band of cherry red painted in the middle of each of their walls, establishing an appropriately captivating backdrop for the genius of Wright’s works. The walls are crowded with the 26 plates, all of which demonstrate an awe-inspiring degree of detail and intricacy.
The passion with which Wright imbued each of his concepts is evident in their care. For example, “XIVa, Concrete House for the ‘Ladies Home Journal’” depicts a modern home, marked with Wright’s characteristically clean, rectangular lines and illustrated with naturalistic foliage. The building is absorbed into nature in the sketch, displaying to a full extent “organic architecture.” The second room houses further plans for such illustrious buildings as The Larkin Building. Designed in 1904 and built in 1906 by the Larkin Soap Company of Buffalo, N.Y., this was Wright’s first major work. Not only did it indicate the trajectory of his own personal career, but also that of architecture from then on. It was one of the precursors to the skyscraper, an office building intended to reflect the power of its inhabitants. Indeed, the building also contained various innovations such as air conditioning, stained glass windows, built-in desk furniture and suspended toilet bowls. The fact that students are able to view the plans for such a significant building is particularly poignant considering The Larkin Building’s 1950 demolition.
Visitors to the exhibition, however, are able to do more than view these historical works. All are invited to interact intimately with them and with other viewers. Beside each set of works is placed a journal and as is noted at the exhibition’s entry by WCMA, “the students [in Professor Johnson’s class] encourage you to share your thoughts as you study the plates and read the labels and to pose questions raised for you by the images and texts. Each week the students will read and respond to the comments, thereby engaging in an ongoing public conversation, which you are invited to continue.”
The exhibition is an example of the far-reaching opportunities afforded to any and all interested in art residing in the Williamstown area. Here at WCMA, hidden in some obscure hallway, lie the works of a genius and students at the College are afforded the unprecedented opportunity to engage fully with them. All are urged to do so prior to the exhibition’s close on May 24, 2015.