By Gina McKlveen
Typically, art museums taut the very prized and pristine artworks in their collection or on exhibition that were materialized during the life of an artist, displayed to the viewing public in the most tangible form. Hardly ever, if at all, do art museums give its featured artists or its visitors a view of what artworks were not realized over the course of an artist’s lifetime. However, for the past three months, The Westmoreland Museum of American Art has dared to envision what could have been had Frank Lloyd Wright’s unrealized designs for the City of Pittsburgh and greater Southwestern Pennsylvania region been accomplished.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural legacy stretches across the country, east to west, from the Guggenheim Museum in New York City to the Marin County Civic Center in Northern California. The famed late architect is likely best known throughout Pennsylvania and the world for his daring design at Fallingwater, a vacation home located approximately 70 miles outside of Pittsburgh proper, made especially for the prominent Kaufmann family, of the former Kaufmann Department Store along Fifth Ave in Downtown. In part, The Westmoreland’s recent Wright exhibit acknowledges the architect’s accomplishments like Fallingwater, but focuses primarily on those plans that failed to reach beyond the drafting page.
Lining the walls of the Westmoreland’s Wright exhibit, hung traditional drawings in frames, precisely drawn to scale in sepia ink and pencil on tracing paper, depicting the residential, commercial and civic architectural plans drafted by Wright from the 1930s through the 1950s. Simultaneously, mounted on the walls next to Wright’s old yet futuristic-looking drawings were flat screens playing hyper-realistic animated films created by Skyline Ink Animators + Illustrators, an Oklahoma-based company founded by husband and wife, Brian Eyerman and Lu Eyerman, that immersed the audience in a vision of what could have been, imagining what a 1950s Pittsburgh would look like had Wright’s projects been built. Likewise, 3-D models of Wright’s designs stood atop pedestals throughout the gallery, giving viewers a sculpturesque-360-view of Wright’s 2-D designs. Combinations of old and new in such close proximity contributed to the exhibit’s overarching themes of time and space.
The unrealized projects themselves included a Civic Center at Point Park (1947), a self-service garage for Kaufmann’s Department Store (1949), the Point View Residences designed for the Edgar J. Kaufmann Charitable Trust (1952), the Rhododendron Chapel (1952), and a gate lodge for the Fallingwater grounds (1941). The Westmoreland Wright exhibit concentrated on the architect’s first three unrealized projects, while the latter two designs were featured in further detail at Fallingwater’s Speyer Gallery. A large theater stretching the expanse of The Westmoreland’s Cantilever Gallery played an expanded film of the three unrealized Pittsburgh designs, which quite literally transported its viewers into a mid-20th century version of Pittsburgh, where Wright’s designs completely altered the Downtown, Mount Washington, and Point Park areas that Pittsburghers know today. Along the streets the video accurately depicts 1940s-style cars parked along Smithfield and Forbes and inside Wright’s self-service garage; the iconic red incline descended Mount Washington as Wright’s Point View Residences protruded from the hillside into the sky; and finally, as the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers converged into the Ohio a view of Wright’s Civic Center at both day and night was a reminder that the only constant in our world is change.
Yet, a quick leaf through the gallery’s visitors book revealed that most of the general public, although inspired, was relieved that these designs did not actuate, especially at Point Park, favoring instead the City of Pittsburgh’s commitment to securing green spaces over Wright’s proposed Civic Center. However, this viewer was intrigued by the possibility, or rather the potential, that Pittsburgh had and continues to have, should it give space to artists to imagine, create, and contribute to the landscape of the city. Further, this exhibit raised larger, more curious questions about the artist through the artworks that he did not create. Was Wright the right man to redesign the city of Pittsburgh, but just caught in the wrong time? If Wright had access to modern-day technologies like drones, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and 3-D printing would these projects have been realized in his time? Or were there greater politics at play that prevented Wright’s plans from taking their place in Pittsburgh?
Wright or wrong, we will never know. We can only imagine.
To learn more about The Westmoreland’s Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit listen and watch the virtual presentation with the museum’s Chief Curator, Jeremiah William McCarthy and Fallingwater’s Senior Director of Preservation and Collections, Scott Perkins, along with Skyline Ink Animators.
The Westmorland is located at 221 N Main Street in Greensburg PA with hours of operation Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM. For more information, click here.