All the Wright Moves | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper



A few weeks ago, architect Edgar Tafel returned to Fallingwater to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the supremely iconic home's design. Tafel, admittedly not the great design talent that his mentor was, still has had a long and multifaceted career as an architect. To most who recognize his name, though, he will always be Frank Lloyd Wright's apprentice. Similarly, the striking, Hollywoodified Prairie houses of Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. (known as Lloyd) would be much better known were it not for his famous father. Is it the curse of America's most renowned architect that his famously low-slung buildings still tend to overshadow other devoted but deserving practitioners?



The current show at the Heinz Architectural Center, Frank Lloyd Wright: Renewing the Legacy, suggests otherwise: Appreciating the richness of Wright's work does not mean being subservient to it. Focusing on designs surrounding two Wright masterpieces, the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, N.Y., and the H.C. Price Company Office Tower and Apartments in Bartlesville, Okla., this exhibit demonstrates that Wright's accomplishments are still considerable and imposing, but that they can bring out the best in today's architectural avant garde.


Chair of Harvard's Graduate School of Design and architect of numerous elegant and assured modern structures, architect Toshiko Mori demonstrates both of these phenomena. In winning a five-way competition to design a visitors' center next to the Martin House, Mori competed against a carefully selected group of elite design firms. Yet, she was most intimidated by the competitor who was no longer living: "How do you deal with a father figure? You can't try to kill him or to imitate him." 


The seemingly simple approach of reversing Wright's architectural characteristics Mori achieves with complex subtlety and refinement. Where the Martin house is almost overbearingly complex, Mori's pavilion is restrained. Where Wright's architecture is heavy, Mori's is visually and physically light. Her inverted roof form literally turns Wright's vocabulary on its head, but only as a culminating feature on a rich architectural showcase that depends also on her characteristically precise details.


The other competition entries, with busier vocabularies of walls, roofs and openings, though rarely imitative, are closer in approach to Wright's own architecture than is Mori's. Each of these entries would be good to brilliant, but only in a different location.


And yet, just when you think that esthetic deference and restraint are the keys to building next to Wright, along comes Zaha Hadid. A personality, innovator and, increasingly, a media figure to rival Wright, Hadid has designed a network of interweaving and overlapping tectonic ribbons to form a museum at the base of the Price Tower. The audacious project, still in search of funds for construction, seems architecturally successful, partly for the obvious reason that, as a horizontal structure, it acts as a foil, not a competitor to the Price Tower, one of the most complex and rich high-rise structures anywhere. Hadid's presentation is also compelling. A floor-mounted abstraction of the building's plan in its irregularly trapezoidal glory spills from the wall and through multiple rooms. A computer-animated fly-through shows the structure self-constructing, as if those speeding and swerving floors, walls and roofs were in a real hurry.


These two projects are only components in a large, multifaceted show. Interior design for the Price Tower by Wendy Evans Joseph Architecture displays a synthetic approach to responding to Wright -- a necessary view in converting the former office building into a boutique hotel. Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects' restoration documents show the near-ruin from which the Martin House has only recently been rescued. Meanwhile, several original and stunning Wright drawings are in the show, as are Martin House and Price Tower architectural fragments, and furniture, as well as an informative profusion of historical documents, photos and video footage.


Direct and indirect influences and relationships through the generations take on a richness that only benefits all of the projects displayed. Wright's children and disciples may have been overlooked for a time, but they occupied a position that is still widely envied -- proximity to the old master architect.

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