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Towering Inferno 

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship

Wednesday, Sep 13 2006

On the last page of The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & the Taliesin Fellowship, we are told that without the Greco-Armenian mystic Georgi Gurdjieff, there “very likely” would have been no Fallingwater, no Johnson Wax building, no Guggenheim Museum. This claim is bold, and something new. Frank Lloyd Wright was many things — unkind and uncaring toward his children, violent and abusive of his wives, relentlessly egotistical among his peers and apprentices, profligate and exploitative — but he was no stooge. The teachings of an occultist who happened to be his third wife’s guru had as little to do with the 20th-century icons he produced as they had to do with his own, homegrown monomania. Despite page after page of attempts to link America’s greatest architect to the Montenegro-born, self-proclaimed healer, it becomes obvious that Wright wasn’t taken in by the muddle of Buddhism and Sufism that Gurdjieff promoted at his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, in Paris.

Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman, the authors of this long, ramshackle discourse on the seamy side of Frank Lloyd Wright and his Taliesin Fellowship, themselves provide sufficient proof to contradict their own final assertion. In 1950, Wright’s wife, Olgivanna, and their daughter, Iovanna, urged all the apprentices at Taliesin to read Gurdjieff’s ?All and Everything. The architect, ever imperious, “countered by buying an entire carton of his own American philosopher-sage Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings and giving them out to the apprentices.” He then declared that Emerson would be “obligatory” reading at the Fellowship. How refreshing, and a fitting anodyne — except that this recital of Wright’s clearheadedness is colored black by the authors’ equation of Emerson’s followers to Gurdjieff’s. Which is a sneaky way of bolstering their point: Frank Lloyd Wright was under the sway . . . of someone.

Alas, the authors are stuck in a trap of their own making. The Fellowship is an intriguing slog because it is about a genuinely fascinating cult figure: Frank Lloyd Wright. Dozens of his apprentices traipse through the book, forming lifelong devotions to Wright — devotions that he almost never reciprocates. Why did they become and remain his partisans, his boys, as he called them? Why did they sacrifice their own talent and happiness to slave away in Wright’s studio, their ambitions stunted, their ideas crushed? Why did they literally wait on him, hand and foot, as cooks and carpenters, chauffeurs and secretaries — paying him tuition for the privilege?

click to flip through (2) Illustration by Mitch Handsone
  • Illustration by Mitch Handsone
 
 

His son, Lloyd, a talented architect, wrote to his father, saying that the fellowship “is in fact and principle a very sorry business all around. And the sorriest part of it is the feudal business of your students. That will make them ashamed of themselves and you if they think and have any perspective and if they don’t they will go thru life . . . as cowards and fools. God help your school if this is what it turns out. You wonder why your pupils are such washouts.” Every word of this assessment is true, yet Wright carried on unscathed. “He lived from first to last like a god: one who acts but is not acted upon,” Lewis Mumford said, and he too was right.

Mumford, who was Wright’s early champion and oftentimes friend (he persuaded Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock to include Wright in the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal 1932 exhibit, “The International Style”), said he possessed “the insolence of his genius.” Like it or not — and he was more than occasionally unlikable — Frank Lloyd Wright was one of those protean 19th-century figures able to tower over the 20th century. Goethe’s model of the self-taught man who remakes the world reverberated continuously in Wright’s mind. Beethoven’s symphonies rang in his ears as he drew his buildings. Ruskin’s sense of beauty limned his own. Wright was also a born huckster, in a line of great American con artists stretching from Benjamin Franklin to Mark Twain. He shared their uncanny instinct for deception, for making up a persona who was strictly for public consumption.

The early tragedy of his life (his second wife and two of her children were axed to death after a servant set Taliesin aflame), his philandering, his illicit and bohemian lifestyle, were tabloid news. But these events were, for the most part, a sideshow. Architecture was the center of Wright’s life, and little else troubled or distracted him. Perhaps this is one of the marks of genius. Another is the ability to see your vision realized. Frank Lloyd Wright never backed down, never acceded to a client’s wishes. He was an absolutist, with unshakable faith in his designs. That was, arguably, his greatest gift, and he made it manifest any number of times in the face of powerful opposition.

So, at Fallingwater, he was warned against cantilevering the house over the rocks at Bear Run. More concrete, more steel, the engineers said. Wright persisted, persuading his client, Edgar Kaufmann Sr., to build Wright’s house Wright’s way. Fallingwater, of course, is an acknowledged (if crumbling) masterpiece; the second half of Wright’s career, which began after 20 years without a paying client, was launched from that precarious work out in the woods of southwestern Pennsylvania. At the Johnson Wax building, Wright was told by Racine officials that his inverted, cone-shaped columns would collapse, but he got his way by building a demonstration column and piling it high with sandbags and rocks far outweighing the proposed load, then, cane in hand, walking under the perilously overburdened column as if on a Sunday stroll. At the Guggenheim, he stuck to his unprecedented spiral, which pushed the limits of both conventional museum walls and concrete work, waiting nearly 13 years for the museum to begin construction.

For such a man, and such accomplishments, there would always be a steady supply of aspiring acolytes. Once at Taliesin, apprentices were subject to Wright’s all-encompassing will. Unflinchingly, he would tell you how to dress or whom to marry. He would mete out favors; he would instigate punishments. He was the master. To live in a world of one great man’s conception, apart from the confusion and ambiguity of the outside, was like a gift. To some, the confinement was liberating. Others simply fled.

In such a place, though, there could be no room for a competitor hawking self-abnegation as a form of personal fulfillment. Frank Lloyd Wright called Gurdjieff “the Devil and the God,” and he was abundantly clear when he told his wife, “You’re not going to turn this into a Gurdjieff Institute. Not while I am alive.” Olgivanna had to wait until he died, and even then, The Fellowship says, she failed. Taliesin is forever associated with Wright. Gurdjieff remains on the margins, where he belongs.

THE FELLOWSHIP: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & the Taliesin Fellowship | By ROGER FRIEDLAND and HAROLD ZELLMAN | HarperCollins | 664 pages | $35 hardcover

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