Interpreting Midway Barn: Understanding Frank Lloyd Wright's Agrarian Vision

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Frank Lloyd Wright
heritage interpretation
Wisconsin farms
Historic Preservation and Conservation
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Ro, Ha Leem

At first glance, Midway Barn in Spring Green, Wisconsin presents itself as another example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s distinctive, if evolving style, its horizontal massing, tilted roof planes, and natural materials echoing the hilly landscape of the farm and its environs. Analysis of the documentary record and a range of sources on Wright’s life and thought, however, points to a richer story. Part of Wright’s larger campaign to reclaim his hometown landscape after his return to the Jones Valley, Midway Barn reflects his desire to reenact the agrarian lessons learned in his youth through the Taliesin Fellowship. Viewed in this way, Midway Barn offers insight not only into the architect’s biography but also into his complicated and sometimes contradictory relationship to “rural” values, materials, and ways of life. It also allows us to compare the barn’s striking visual innovations to its more conventional program and use, both of which were quite at home in the agricultural landscape of early 20th-century Wisconsin. Taking a cue from Freeman Tilden’s observation that the key goal of interpretation is “not instruction, but provocation,” this thesis challenges the perception of Midway Barn as a straightforward example of Wright’s modernist interpretation of a traditional American barn. Instead, this study treats the complex as a window to interpret Wright’s ideas about the role of agriculture and rural lifeways in regional and national society.

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