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“Frank Lloyd Wright: Windows of the Darwin D. Martin House”

At the National Building Museum

to Aug. 20

Imagine architecture by Levi’s, and you get a Virginia town house: comfy, common, machine-washable style. Architecture by BCBG would

be a Dupont Circle condo painted burgundy, a swank pad for the fashionista unconcerned with dry-cleaning bills. And architecture by Issey Miyake? That would be Frank Lloyd Wright, baby: totally gorgeous and 100 percent unwearable.

Like Miyake’s numbers—whose every crease is calculated—Wright’s houses have had the life programmed out of them. Not only is every view accounted for, so is each sidelong glance and shiftless gaze. Wright didn’t like leaving anything to chance, and so he hankered to design not just homes, but every darn thing inside and outside of them—from furniture to light fixtures to shrubbery.

Imagine how this Il Duce of design must have salivated at the sight of clear glass windowpanes—all that wasted space just aching for pattern. Given his druthers, as he was by Darwin D. Martin—a young client who was equal parts pliable, brazen, and loaded—Wright slathered designs all over the place. For Martin, Wright designed the hell out of a six-building, 10,000-square-foot complex in Buffalo, N.Y. And he did the windows, too—with a vengeance. Witness 43 of them on view in “Frank Lloyd Wright: Windows of the Darwin D. Martin House,” on tour while the Martin House gets a facelift and some major reconstructive surgery. (Two of the original six buildings in the complex, built between 1903 and 1905, were destroyed after the Martins lost the property in the ’30s.)

The exhibition’s centerpiece is a scaffolding mock-up scaled one-to-one with three sections of the Martin House—its first-floor reception room, entrance vestibule, and living room. Screwed to the armature’s poles are Wright-designed art-glass windows, doors, and sky- and laylights; about half are originals and half reproductions. The art-glass-in-traction display means you get to look through as well as at these fragile artifacts, with their spines of elaborate brass caming (the metal latticework that holds in the tiny pieces of translucent glass). But as for letting light in and letting us look out—you know, what windows are supposed to do—well, let’s just say these concerns weren’t uppermost in Wright’s mind.

Thanks to a fortune amassed with the Larkin Soap Company, Martin offered Wright a practically unrestricted budget to concoct his dream home. Only in his mid-30s—but already stuffed to the gills with hubris—the architect delivered a Total Wright Experience cloned from pure Prairie-house DNA: cross-axial footprint, massive central chimneys, pitched roofs, and open floor plans. But despite its low-slung, Japanese-Mesoamerican silhouette, the Martin House looks like a fortified bunker. Wisely, Wright left plenty of room for windows—both to let light into the massive structure and to provide some relief from its serious interior brickwork—incorporating more than 300 of them into his design.

But something didn’t work. Looking at the historical photographs of the Martin House interior that pepper this exhibition, you wonder if the Martins found it possible to distinguish their cornflakes from their bacon at the breakfast table. With the exception of its glass-roofed and -walled conservatory, the complex looks as if it needed a direct line to the local power company to fire all the lamps the Martins needed to see anything in there.

What happened? Well, it wasn’t the kind of glass Wright used. Ignoring the turn-of-the-century vogue for Louis Comfort Tiffany- and John LaFarge-style opaque-glass windows, Wright employed predominantly translucent glass in the Martin House. So it’s not saturated colors that made Wright’s windows absorb light rather than siphon it. Instead, it’s the windows’ brass armatures.

Take the seven Tree of Life-themed windows that line the Martin reception room. Each is made of more than 700 pieces of colored glass, some just a few millimeters wide. It takes a hell of a lot of brass to hold all those tiny pieces. But Wright didn’t even need this practical excuse for overlaying his metal grids: Much of the caming in the bursar’s office window simply divides panels of clear glass, parsing what could have been one open pane into countless tiny ones. This creation of pattern for pattern’s sake means caming intersects glass every few inches. The thin lines of metal, when so densely packed, act like prison bars, not even letting light out for good behavior.

But what patterns those grids make! Wright takes the curves and eccentricities out of natural forms—trees, shrubs, flowers—and distills them into rigid rectilinear shapes. The architect’s vision of nature is just a wisp of its blustery self: An ivy vine is reduced to a parade of chevrons, tree trunks are three slivers of caming, leaves become geometry exercises. The Tree of Life windows maintain only a skeletal resemblance to actual trees. Wright makes sure we’re so busy looking at his intricate angular patterns that what’s outside the windows—wind, rain, well-manicured shrubbery—doesn’t matter. These windows are about obstruction.

Thanks to this exhibition’s scaffolding, we get to see the windows as the Martins did. Which means that if you’re 5-foot-7, like me, you won’t be able to see out of the reception room windows if you’re just standing there. Instead, you’ll see a thicket of stylized tree branches. And if you bend down and pretend like you’re sitting in one of the barrel chairs Wright designed for this house, you won’t see anything through the windows, either: Wright put a trio of big green squares at the base of each one.

Although the Martins were neither of average means nor of average taste, they were of average height. Once they moved into their house, they asked Wright to lose those green squares. Then, at least, they could see the landscaping outside—after all, Wright designed that, too. Surprisingly, the architect capitulated. But this exhibition doesn’t show those adulterated windows the Martins requested—it shows the Wright originals. Just one of the altered windows is on display—ghettoized behind a partition at the exhibition’s end. This show delivers the Wright Experience as he intended it.

You can’t help but marvel at the order of it all. As you stand under the entrance-vestibule scaffolding, you see a black-and-white photo on the wall straight ahead. The photo presents the view that the Martins’ house guests would have had standing in the same spot—a view down a long, rhythmic colonnade that escorts your eye to the conservatory beyond with theatrical flourish. Wright was a superlative stage manager. Such carefully constructed interior views make Wright houses astonishing to explore—and nearly impossible to live in. For Wright, design came first. Before light. Or the view outside. Or comfort. Like an impeccably tailored dress without any zippers, the Martin House looks great—but you just can’t get into it. CP