Living in America: Frank Lloyd Wright, Harlem, and Modern Housing

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Exhibitions NYC, NY, USA September 9, 2017 - December 17, 2017

“Living in America,” part of a manifesto that was written on wooden panels traveling with the model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City (1929–58), evokes a question that preoccupied architects and planners throughout the mid-twentieth century. Wright’s idealized plan for an exurban settlement of single-family homes offered one possible answer; plans for large public or subsidized housing located in urban areas presented another. Although these two visions seem a world apart, they share a common history.

Wright (1867–1959) first exhibited his Broadacre City project at Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan in 1935. While the prominent, Wisconsin-based architect anticipated a degree of economic diversity, Broadacre’s residents were, for the most part, implicitly white. In 1936 construction began on one of New York City’s first public housing developments, the Harlem River Houses, funded by the Public Works Administration under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Built for working-class African Americans, the complex was designed by a consortium including John Louis Wilson, Jr., the first African American to graduate from Columbia University’s School of Architecture. Through such parallel examples, this exhibition tells a story of segregation, inequality, and aspiration­­––a story as old as the country itself, and one that continues to pose the question, “How to live in America, together?”

The exhibition’s narrative takes the form of two interwoven plotlines, developed through displays of project-specific drawings, photographs, and other material dating from the late 1920s to the late 1950s. One plotline tracks the Broadacre scheme as it plays out in Wright’s subsequent work, scattered around the country; the other tracks the development of public housing in Harlem, ending just outside the gallery, adjacent to Columbia’s new campus. Both stories connect social institutions, such as the nuclear family, with economic structures, such as private property or its alternatives. In Wright’s incompletely realized “American Dream” of exurban living we witness lines of race, class, and gender being drawn. Harlem’s public housing complexes draw similar lines. They also, however, acknowledge a right—the right to housing—that is actively forgotten in America today.

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