MoMA and Columbia University’s Avery Library recently made an acquisition sure to excite even the most casual architecture fans: the Frank Lloyd Wright Archive. In addition to many thousands of drawings, photographs, and ephemera, this collection includes over 60 models and building fragments. One of the largest and most expansive models is that of Broadacre City—Frank Lloyd Wright’s utopian reimagining of the city as open space and landscape rather than skyscraper and skyline.
Built by Wright and his fellows at Taliesin in 1934, this 12-foot-by-12-foot model features everything from sweeping agricultural plots to a public parking structure whose design anticipates the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (which was conceived some 20 years later).
In anticipation of its central role in the upcoming exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal, the Broadacre City model came to the Conservation Department to be prepared for display. Made of wood, paint, paper, and particle board, this model had spent the last 70 odd years uncovered and in uncontrolled climates. Not surprisingly, the model was extremely dirty and many of its fragile features were loose or splitting from the wooden base. Further, the work had been restored in 1994, at which time many missing elements were replaced or their footprints overpainted to minimize absences. Lacking complete documentation of this campaign it was difficult, at first, to identify these relatively recent restorations.
As with most of the objects that come through our studio, conserving Wright’s model was not only about cleaning and repairing, but also about also about taking into consideration the work’s “original” state, as its maker intended. To accomplish this, we typically examine a variety of evidence, gleaned both by closely analyzing the work itself, and by sleuthing in the library. Aided by the staff of Avery and Taliesin East, we located historic photographs of the model taken shortly after it was completed, which we compared to the model in its present state. Going over the work inch-by-inch, we took note of discrepancies between the photographs and model, which, surprisingly, included modifications as well as losses. For example, a block of rectangular residences original to the model had been replaced with pinwheel style buildings—a building style Wright only employed about a decade after the Broadacre City model was built. This alteration suggests that Wright continued to tinker with the model well after its initial fabrication.
With a clearer understanding of the model’s original state, we began conservation by first vacuuming the work; a microfibrous bead cloth placed over the vacuum captured the more tenacious dust (a handy tip from conservator Jane Bassett at the Getty Museum). The work was then surface-cleaned with damp sponges.
Lost elements were carefully recorded, but most were not refabricated. This strategy,which was devised jointly with the Acting Chief Curator of Architecture and Design Barry Bergdoll, aims to present the work as an aged artifact transformed over time, both by Wright’s developing vision as well as by gradual deterioration. Loss compensation was therefore reserved for the larger and thus more blatantly, missing buildings. A series of repeating carved wooden buildings were replaced by taking molds off extant buildings and casting resin replicas. This was not only more efficient than carving new ones from wood, but made the replacements discernible from the originals.
Broadacre City was never realized, however, it remains a significant part of Wright’s legacy. We hope that preserving this singular model will enable people to continue to appreciate and learn from Wright, both as an architect and as an urban planner. The model is on view in Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal, now through June 1, come see for yourself (and try to spot our resin replacements!).