Big Tower on the Prairie
Exhibit Explores Okla. Realization of Wright's Skyscraper Dreams

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 17, 2006

Frank Lloyd Wright came tantalizingly close to redefining the Washington skyline.

The master architect was commissioned to design a $15 million complex at the corner of Florida and Connecticut avenues. Two drawings from 1940 -- which appear in an exhibition opening today at the National Building Museum -- show how the neighborhood above Dupont Circle could have become a stunning landmark equal to New York's Rockefeller Center.

Wright called the project Crystal Heights. He envisioned 24 distinctive apartment towers and a 1,000-room skyscraper hotel topped by peaked wings of concrete. The buildings were to rise more than 200 feet from a base of expansive terraces and roof gardens. And shops and a theater were included in the plan, making Wright a pioneer of today's popular mixed-use development.

Crystal Heights never got off the drawing board because the area was zoned for residential use only, said Neil Levine, professor of art and architecture at Harvard University and an expert on the project.

Mina Marefat, a Washington and Wright scholar, believes Wright's imperious attitude offended Washington's bureaucracy, including the zoning and planning boards whose support he needed to change the rules. Building Museum curator Chrysanthe B. Broikos located a letter from Wright to the client, Roy Thurman, complaining of "difficulty getting the necessary permits."

If Washington was not destined to become Wright's vertical city, the prairie proved more accommodating. The exhibition, called "Prairie Skyscraper: Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower," shows how Wright struggled for decades to build a skyscraper. He designed many, but completed only one -- 50 years ago, and three years before his death at 92. It is the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Okla.

Architects know the 19-story building as one of the most daringly engineered buildings of the past century. Because Bartlesville is a bit off the tourist circuit, Price Tower is also one of "the most famous of Wright's unknown buildings," said Richard P. Townsend, executive director of the Price Tower Arts Center, which occupies the building and created the exhibition.

Wright's building was a radical combination of apartments, offices and shops in a radical structure that relies on "rotational geometry." Essentially, it's a concrete core supporting cantilevered floors. The tower houses an art museum, the 21-room Inn at Price Tower and a restaurant aptly named Copper. Only the three top floors -- once occupied by the Price family -- retain original furnishings, and they are being restored.

The exhibition presents the original model, furnishings, letters and documents, along with a stunning selection of drawings from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The installation was designed by Zaha Hadid. The Pritzker Prize-winning London architect was commissioned to design a proposed expansion for the arts center, which explains how 21st-century geometries -- angular planes based on parallelograms are her signature -- made their way into a Wright exhibition. The synthesis of old and new is expressed in a crystalline model, which turns the Price Tower into a modernist glass trophy. No harm is done. Hadid's spiraling loop frames the icon with respect, at least at this small scale.

The original model of Price Tower is worth traveling to see. It shows clearly how the novel design relieved exterior walls from structural burdens. Wright made them a canvas for creative expression.

Decorative effects served a purpose. Bands of copper panels, which Wright aligned from roof to mezzanine, function as louvers to shield windows from the Oklahoma sun. Window glass was tinted gold and the copper panels were acid-washed to achieve a green patina.

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. .

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