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Big Tower on the Prairie

The National Building Museum exhibit includes a model and drawing, right, of Frank Lloyd Wright's 19-story Price Tower, completed 50 years ago in Bartlesville, Okla.
The National Building Museum exhibit includes a model and drawing, right, of Frank Lloyd Wright's 19-story Price Tower, completed 50 years ago in Bartlesville, Okla. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

As was his custom, Wright designed every piece of furniture, fabric pattern and special feature, right down to a built-in desk wastebasket. Detailing relied on the architect's menu of meaningful geometries: squares for integrity, circles for infinity, triangles for unity and the spiral for aspiration.

The apartments were quintessential Wright environments, which means small by modern standards and somewhat quirky. Pie-shaped rooms came with double-height ceilings, sleeping lofts and red-tinted concrete floors. But at a mere 700 square feet, they failed to attract the well-to-do in oil country.

"They never really took off," Townsend said. "They were conceived to be luxury apartments, but no one wanted to live in them. It was all about him, building this urban utopian experiment."

Wright saw the skyscraper as a key to civilized urban development that would leave nature relatively undisturbed. In Bartlesville, he set off a complete city from surroundings like a "tree that escaped the crowded forest."

The lone tower reappears in a futuristic fantasy called Broadacre City. Wright drew a skyscraper amid fields of grain. The vision anticipated suburban development as an intrusion into the countryside made possible by cars. But the architect sketched inhabitants flying in capsules that resemble giant badminton shuttlecocks.

At the end of his career, Wright proposed a Mile High Skyscraper, which at 528 stories was more than engineering could sustain. The self-contained city represented a critique of the profession and what he thought were timid skyscraper designs. It was also a plea to concentrate population so that nature would not be destroyed by sprawl.

Wright was often ahead of his time, and rarely all wrong. In a glass case, the exhibition presents an essay that Wright wrote in 1955. In it, he closes with a rallying cry for the power of bold architecture, which he had hoped Crystal Heights would be.

"Why not American Buildings now as spirited as Mont St. Michel, yet as scientific and utilitarian in nature as the automobile, the steamship or the airplane."

Why not, indeed.

Prairie Skyscraper: Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower continues through Sept. 17 at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. 202-272-2448. http://www.nbm.org .


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