The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)’s new exhibition, Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive (on view through October 1, 2017), explores lesser-known chapters from Wright’s 70-year-long career. Reviewers have understandably dwelled on his little-known projects for an experimental farm and a series of rural school buildings in the segregated South. Few, however, have focused on the prominent—and fascinating—role given to Wright’s architectural models in the show itself. “For him, they were presentation pieces meant to seduce the clients or put them at ease, especially if the designs were avant-garde or difficult to picture on paper,” says MoMA conservator Ellen Moody. And when the models failed to woo the clients, Wright, ever the showman, recycled the objects and enlisted them to promote his practice as part of touring exhibits.
Wright continuously tinkered with his models, forcing them to undergo extensive modifications. With the help of archival materials, MoMA’s curators have used the models to analyze Wright’s thought process and the evolution of his ideas. This process also revealed the alterations performed by other stakeholders, including clients and conservators. A model of an early iteration of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1943–59)—distinguished from the built version by a series of small, domed skylights and extensive interior landscaping—arrived at the MoMA in almost pristine condition. Yet, Moody’s research pointed out a series of telling transformations. A cross-sectional analysis of the exterior paint revealed an under-layer of warm ocher paint, clearly different from the cool white found in MoMA’s model. The discrepancy reveals a history of disagreements between Wright and his clients—and how Wright’s preference for a darker color was subsequently undermined, both in the model and in reality. (In alternative renditions, he even depicted the museum in pink.)