CD-ROM does right by Frank Lloyd

The Associated Press

NEW YORK Visionary architect Frank Lloyd Wright routinely pictured the unimaginable: a mile-high skyscraper, giant golf tee pillars propping up a ceiling of oversized lily pads, a hovering UFO church, the sublime corkscrew ramp coiled inside the Guggenheim Museum.

An undisputed master of form and function, Wright gained credibility with the common man by finding time to lavish his gifts on lowly gas stations and motels as well as contemporary office towers, amphitheaters and civic centers.

Thirty-five years after his death, a new CD-ROM computer archive of Wright's work presents a never-before-seen peek over the artist's shoulder.

Unfortunately, at $1,500 it costs as much as some computers.

Beyond his surviving buildings, the legacy of Wright's genius can be found in his drawings the weighty baggage of a busy seven-decade career ranging from finished presentation workups to everyday technical studies and rough sketches.

Dating back to 1887, they track Wright's growth from chief draftsman for famed Chicago architect Louis H. Sullivan through his unmatched career up to the final drawings done before his death in 1959.

Many floor plans never got much farther than the drawing board and most have been available only to a select few in the ensuing years, which only serves to make the new computer collection all the more attractive.

''Frank Lloyd Wright: Presentation and Conceptual Drawings,'' a four-disk package (Oxford University Press) designed to run with Windows software, manages to do justice to one of the finest minds of the 20th century.

But just barely.

Entrusted with the holy mission of enshrining Wright's best two-dimensional work, the production team of California-based Luna Imaging Inc. and Eastman Kodak succeeded, thanks mainly to the quality and sheer volume of the collection itself.

Nearly 5,000 full-color digitized drawings from 860 design projects are on file. You'll need a powerful, well-equipped machine to run the program at optimum speed, and unless you have multiple CD players, expect to spend some time switching between disks.

The relatively straightforward search mechanisms poked along sluggishly on the 486 IBM compatible with 8Mb of RAM used at a recent unveiling, but usually produced the desired result.

The collection features buildings of all types: barns, train stations, country clubs, Wright's famous ''prairie style'' homes, as well as places of worship, including the Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa, Wis., resembling a flying saucer.

Check out S.C. Johnson Co. headquarters, where the gigantic golf tees and daring lily pad ceiling make the office building look like a sculpture garden.

Examine your favorite creation from every possible angle, going from sprawling bird's-eye-views down to the smallest detail sketches.

There's even an amusement park, but it doesn't stop there. Drawings include furniture designs, magazine covers, pottery concepts, lighting fixture plans and carpeting ideas.

Kudos to Kodak. The package's best attribute is image quality, which allows viewers to zoom in on selected areas to study fine details, including individual pencil strokes, erasure marks and corrections. The bigger the monitor the better the definition.

The image search and manipulation controls are nothing special and you can only print in black-and-white. So, clearly the price is for use of the images themselves.

Apparently, cooperation from The Frank Lloyd Wright Archives didn't come cheap.

The final oddity is that Oxford's primary sales target is the limited university library market. What gives?

Why not make it, say, a two-disk deal, slash the price by two-thirds and inevitably boost profits selling copies by the tens of thousands rather than hundreds?

Go figure.

Happily, the impressive display of Wright's visual talents casts even the most righteous of indignation over prohibitive pricing far into the background, his record of achievements rising above mere money to the aesthetic benchmark that marked his stellar career.

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