Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A show at Columbia University illuminates the celebrated architect’s vision for housing in America by placing it alongside the urban brick apartment towers he loathed.
A wooden panel designed to accompany Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City model declares that students of his proposed utopia must read Jesus, Voltaire, and Walt Whitman, among others, to truly understand the architect’s ideas for a new way of American living.
Broadacre was the heart of Wright’s vision for a better American way, and he constantly tinkered with after starting on it in 1929. In it, there was one acre of land for each family, towers carefully spread apart enough to avoid crowding, and private vehicles on uncongested streets. It would fulfill the beliefs on one of those wooden panels, most importantly: “no private ownership of public needs” and “no public ownership of private needs.”
This was to be the opposite of what Wright saw as “oppressive, red prison-towers [that] loom everywhere in the overgrown village” of New York.
Wright has never been mistaken for a humble figure, but he has too often been presented through a narrow lens of his own creative genius, separated from the realities of the world he existed in. Currently inside the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University’s new Manhattanville campus, visitors can experience the architect’s ideas through a refreshingly uncommon lens—the public housing of Harlem.
“Living In America: Frank Lloyd Wright, Harlem & Modern Housing,” displays built and unbuilt Wright projects from the New Deal up until his death in 1959 alongside government-aided mass housing by other architects constructed during that same time. (Those buildings still stand just outside the doors of the new gallery.) Traveling chronologically, one can see Wright’s low-density homes fueled by ideas of individual freedom and a collective nostalgia for the American West, paired with the hulking brick apartment towers he loathed.
“You can come here to learn about Broadacre City, learn about Harlem River Houses, and then see how they’re related,” says Jacob Moore, Assistant Director of the Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.
“Broadacre City is all about the westward expansion, the endless horizon, and man’s right to claim that land and provide for his family though it,”says Moore. Such ideas fit in with a dominantly white idea of how America should function, from the home to the halls of Congress.
“If public housing was explicitly racially segregated from the beginning, then it’s important to underline how Broadacre City was implicitly racialized,” says Moore.
Wright still had to operate in the same reality that the architects of places like Harlem River Houses and Manhattanville Houses did. Designers, planners, and developers were working in response to legislation like the New Deal, the Housing Acts of 1937 and 1949, and the 1956 Highway Act. “He was an opportunist,” Moore says of Wright. “If there was going to be all this money coming down from the government and a radical rethinking of the way things were going to be done, then he wanted to seize it. It was speculative from get go, so he never had to truly pin it down.”
After the exclusively black Dunbar Apartments, commissioned by John D. Rockefeller, designed by Andrew Jackson Thomas, and completed in 1928, a vast majority of Harlem’s apartments were built by the public sector.
Harlem River Houses, the city’s first federal housing for African Americans, opened in 1937. Designed by a team of architects that included John Louis Wilson Jr., the first black architect to graduate from Columbia, it had about 80 different unit plans—far more than subsequent projects. “A lot of creative thinking went into it with regards to community services, art, and public spaces,” says Moore.
Meanwhile, the Jesse C. Fisher Jr. Housing Project—a rare foray by Wright into building exclusively for non-white residents—shows the various levels of difficulties blacks faced finding decent private-sector housing. In 1957, Fisher Jr., a white developer, sought to build a model community for middle-class African Americans in Whiteville, North Carolina. The project would have included parks and a pool—public places they were often excluded from—but it could not get financing from local banks and therefore did not receive Federal Housing Administration approval. Wright’s Fisher project may have been a noble plan, but the curatorial team at the Buell Center found one of its drawings labeled “Darky Village.” They can’t say for sure who was responsible, but, as pointed out in the show, Wright once said in a 1940 interview with Mies van der Rohe about Broadacre City, “Of course there will be religion. Protestants, Catholics, Darkies, and the Synagogues will be with us.”
Such small insights about Wright help put this image-controlling and larger-than-life figure in a more human (if less flattering) light. “Finding traces of his relationship with culture more generally shouldn’t be surprising, but the history of him in writing has largely reinforced the painting of him as a singular genius,” says Moore. “That’s a function of his archives having been in the desert, protected, and carefully minded.”
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation archives were acquired in 2012 by the Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library from Taliesin West in Arizona. “Living In America” is part of the new effort to connect Wright’s work to the world more generally. Earlier this year, MoMA put together a large show in celebration of the architect’s 150th birthday that provided, along with some of his greatest hits, a fresh perspective on Wright’s views on American identity, space, and race.
“We want to connect his archives to the world more generally,” says Moore. “We’re not trying to set him up as a foil or a bad guy against public housing… Fisher was a self-styled progressive developer, Wright saw himself as a progressive. For them, this was an impressive do-gooder project, and yet it was described inside the office in those terms,” he adds.
Besides the toggling between Harlem and Wright, aided by large index cards on each project for visitors to keep, there’s a self-awareness hanging over the show regarding Columbia’s growing presence in Harlem. The university resorted to the use of eminent domain in 2008 in order to build its Renzo Piano-designed Manhattanville campus, the first phase of which opened earlier this year. Like the massive housing projects that swept through Harlem after 1930, there are concerns over displacement and political leverage in the face of a powerful landowner whose presence will inevitably change the neighborhood. The Wallach Art Gallery, under Director and Chief Curator Deborah Cullen, wants to connect beyond the Ivy League institution and into the community. Word of the show has spread since it opened among current and former residents of the highlighted housing projects and a Manhattanville elementary school class is expected to visit before the show concludes.
“With the New Deal, there were big questions that could be asked and answered,” says Moore. “We can connect that era to today since 2008 and the dearth of serious conversations about changing the status quo for housing and associated lifestyles.”
“Living In America: Frank Lloyd Wright, Harlem & Modern Housing,” is on exhibit at The Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University Lenfest Center of the Arts through December 17th.