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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Aug. 29, 2014

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The drawings for the unbuilt Lenkurt Electric project are stunning.
The drawings for the unbuilt Lenkurt Electric project are stunning.

MAM celebrates 100 years of Taliesen; 10 years of Calatrava

Brady Roberts, Milwaukee Art Museum's chief curator, greets me at the entrance to "Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century," which opens Feb. 12 and runs through May 15 in the Baker/Rowland Galleries of the Santiago Calatrava-designed MAM expansion.

"Let's start at this photograph of Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen," says Roberts, "(his) home and studio in Spring Green. He's at the draughting table, drawings in front of him, model behind him. This is sort of a synopsis of our exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of Taliesen with drawings and models, photographs, video installations."

Sure, the exhibition honors a century of Taliesen, but it's also no coincidence that a landmark architecture show kicks off the year in which Milwaukee Art Museum celebrates the 10th birthday of Calatrava's distinctive addition to the city's landscape.

Both architects, of course, also draw heavily on organic forms in their work and feel linked in more than just their Wisconsin connection.

"The focus of our show," explains Roberts, "in addition to being a survey, we're looking at Wright's organic architecture through the lens of the 21st century. Thinking about what's still valuable about Wright's principles and designs today. There's actually a lot of interest."

As energy efficiency and constrained resources -- both natural and financial -- continue to push architects toward creating smaller spaces that don't feel constrained and dark and limiting, Wright's work -- especially when you think of his ground-breaking work in the area of pre-fabs -- feels as relevant as ever.

The fact that he seemed decades and decades ahead of his time and his peers doesn't hurt, either. Looking at what Wright was doing in the 1930s (and sometimes even earlier) in this show, we realize that we're finally catching up with him.

"What he said was organic architecture is appropriate to time, people and place," says Roberts. "And what he meant by time was technology. He actually loved what the rapid march of technology allowed him to do as an architect, to push the language of architecture.

"He was frequently borrowing new technologies to push his designs. And (his work was on a) very human scale. He always takes his cues from the local environment, he's always connecting with the local environment."

The exhibition is a treat for the eyes, with projected film footage showing Fallingwater in all seasons, there are great and expansive models and a really fascinating exploded view model on loan from the Guggenheim in New York.

There are many, many original drawings -- including a number of especially interesting ones of Milwaukee's Bogk House -- photographs and more. Among the loveliest is a tempera painting by a Wright assistant of an unbuilt factory building in California (see image above).

One of the real gems of the show is a loop of home movies -- from Milwaukee Art Museum's own collection -- edited from about an hour's worth of footage of Wright at Taliesen in the 1930s and perhaps into the '40s.

"This is the first time this has been exhibited," says Roberts.

"It shows Frank Lloyd Wright and his colleagues and friends and apprentices basically hanging out at Taliesen in the landscape. They're farming, they're swimming, they're picknicking, they're going to the horse races with watermelons. It's a slice of life at Taliesen."

The exhibit kicks off Friday night with the "MAM After Dark: Mr. Wright" event from 5 p.m. until midnight. Get a gallery walk-through with Roberts, check out the LEGO pit, hear crooner Ed Franks, say cheese in the photo booth and more. Free for MAM members, $12 at the door, $6 in advance at mam.org/afterdark.

The exhibit officially opens on Saturday.

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