If Frank Lloyd Wright wrote his own history, the expert in personal myth-making would likely paint himself as the visionary architect of progress who reinvented cities, houses, and architectural systems all in the name of a better society. But as one of his lesser-known unbuilt projects reveals, his definition of “social progress” was filled with contradictions. Was Wright truly forward-thinking? It’s complicated–and it reveals a blind spot in architectural scholarship.
In 1928, Wright created a conceptual design for the Rosenwald Schools–an educational network, mostly in the segregated south, for African-American children. The unbuilt project proposed a school that emphasized learning through play and physical activity, taught geometry through architecture, and was designed with affordable construction in mind.
The project is featured in Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive, a new exhibition at MoMA. But before the exhibition, there was little research on Wright’s Rosenwald School, as it only existed in two drawings in Wright’s archive, and it’s virtually ignored by history books on Wright. Mabel O. Wilson, an architectural history and theory professor at Columbia University, sought to fill in the blanks when she was invited to interpret an item from the archive for the exhibition.
Compared to Wright’s other work, the school was a small, obscure project that arose from abnormal circumstances. But that he talked about the building’s users through regressive and racist terminology speaks volumes about how the architect, who was so intent on looking to the future, couldn’t shake some of the ingrained social behaviors of his time.
Wilson’s new research into the project sheds light on an oft-ignored aspect of his legacy–and opens a line of inquiry into how history understands so-called progressive geniuses.
In a video about her research, Wilson outlines the contradiction in Wright’s views about social progress. She points out that Wright used many of the same architectural details and strategies that he employed for wealthier, white clients–a move that reflects a perspective that all people deserve the same quality and thoughtfulness in a building. Meanwhile, correspondence reveals that Wright harbored prejudices and stereotypes about African-Americans:
“When you start to read some of how Wright starts to describe the project–and particularly the way in which he characterizes African-Americans as being childlike, enjoying music and dance, bright colors–[and how] he makes a reference to ‘darkies,’ there’s a sensibility about Wright that starts to allow for cultural hierarchies. They are certainly a part of that time and could be understood as being sort of the part of the rationale about how civilization would advance, which was often talked about as white civilization without necessarily describing it.”
Established by Tuskege Institute educator and activist Booker T. Washington and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald in 1913, the Rosenwald Schools were an experimental model for increasing literacy in African-American children and youth, and decreasing poverty. Because of segregation and the lack of public money for African-American schools, Rosenwald donated one-third of the required funding for each school, while the black community that the schools served contributed another third, and the local school board the final third.
Robert R. Taylor, the first licensed black architect, designed the schools’ first prototypes. Washington published a technical guidebook that instructed the communities on how to physically construct their own schools since they had to be responsible for building their own–a move that taught skills and helped lower costs since it was essentially free labor. By 1928, there were over 4,300 schools built with this method, mostly in the Jim Crow south.
That same year, Darwin Martin–one of Wright’s clients–introduced the architect to James E. Gregg, the principal of Hampton University, which was getting involved with the construction of a school using Rosenwald Funds. (At the time, Wright was reeling from bankruptcy, and Martin was helping him get back on his feet.) The university was in the process of updating the schools’ design guidelines, and Martin suggested Wright for the job since the architect was interested in low-cost design, design for everyday people, and buildings that individuals could construct themselves.
Wright’s conceptual design for a Rosenwald School was based on a courtyard shape. Classrooms, administrative offices, and an auditorium wrapped around a central play courtyard. Instead of the humble and generic colonial-style designs that the schools previously had followed, Wright proposed fieldstone-clad walls, geometric windows, vibrantly colored chevron-patterned shingles, and pitched roofs with angles that reflected daylight into the classrooms.
The school’s architecture–namely the use of geometric shapes and color, and integrating play spaces–was based on the teachings of Friedrich Fröbel, the inventor of kindergarden. Wright used some of the same details in his 1926 projects for playhouses in Oak Park, Illinois, an upper middle-class Chicago suburb. All sounds well and good so far–until you get to the part where Wright starts talking about his designs.
In a 1928 letter to Martin, Wright wrote: “School should be a happy place–even for the negro.” On a photocopy of one of the drawings later given to architect Albert Kahn, Wright explained his intentions behind the design: “an attempt to make a school building a little warmer in color and form and nearer to the negro heart than the little old New England schoolhouse.” In a 1945 lecture at the Milwaukee Art Institute, Wright said, “the Darkies would have something that belonged to them. Something exterior of their own lively interior color and charm.”
“Wright referred to African-Americans as ‘darkies,’ and there appeared notes on drawings that indicated beliefs that blacks liked bright colors or in letters that they were a simple people who took great joy in song,” Wilson tells Co.Design via email. “These racist sentiments emerge in the Jim Crow era after Reconstruction, which is exactly the period of Wright’s youth. And yet he was surrounded by many progressive family members like his uncle the Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones, who embraced and promoted socially progressive ideas about education.”
While Wright’s own archive–now under the joint stewardship of MoMA and the Avery Library at Columbia University–was the impetus for Wilson’s research, she sleuthed most of this information in different archives, namely those of Hampton University, the University of Chicago, Fisk University, and the University of Virginia. Wright is one of the most popular and most written-about American architects, but there are still glaring gaps in understanding his real social philosophy and intent, as the Rosenwald School design reveals.
“Jack Quinan wrote an excellent history of the project from the perspective of [his] client relationship with Martin,” Wilson tells Co.Design. “But I think the absence of scholarship on the school reveals how much architectural scholarship tends toward narratives of the great men, which is proven by the documentary evidence in the architect’s archives, rather than shifting focus to examine the other social and cultural contexts of the projects, perhaps seeking alternative archives for those clues.”