September 2006

The many wrongs of Mr. Wright

By Roger Friedland
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Sometimes, with great artists, it might be better not to know about their personal lives, their idiosyncratic beliefs, about their sanctimonious self-perception. Though much is already known about Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright &andamp; the Taliesin Fellowship offers an insider's view of the architect's world that will probably surprise, if not shock, some readers. This massive, well-researched volume written in fully collaborative style by Roger Friedland, a cultural sociologist at UC-Santa Barbara, and architect Harold Zellman is not a biography, per se, but instead probes the philosophical underpinnings and cultism of the Taliesin Fellowship, Wright's communal enterprise based in his home state of Wisconsin (with a later satellite location in Arizona, where the master died).

Taliesin was ostensibly set up to promote Wright's so-called organic architectural design ethic, and was inspired in part by the Greek-Armenian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, one of whose ardent disciples was Wright's third wife, Olgivanna. The mix of Wright's egomania and Olgivanna's controlling attitude toward members of the Taliesin community comprising by and large young male apprentices (many of them homosexual), along with sundry family members and motley hangers-on made for a decidedly strange social situation. (For all their artistic idealism, the Taliesins certainly indulged in incredibly messy, less than idealistic personal relationships, much of it outlined here in bizarre detail.) Meanwhile, Wright, believing that the world should bow at his feet despite the fact that he was in constant financial hot water and was bailed out time and again by committed and sometimes self-sacrificing supporters courted potential clients, most critically as regards his design of New York City's Guggenheim Museum (a project that spanned 13 years from initial conception to official approval of the building plans).

Wright also boldly promoted sociopolitical ideas encompassing pro-Germany sentiment and isolationism on the eve of World War II; childish skepticism about university training (he'd never obtained a degree himself); and his plans for perfect living (Broadacre City) and geopolitical restructuring of the U.S. (aka Usonia). Wright held sway over influential persons such as House Beautiful editor Elizabeth Gordon, who did all she could to publicize the Wright architectural agenda and his supposedly iconic image. He also freely nurtured relationships that were usually only self-serving, made some critical enemies (J. Edgar Hoover, among them), steadfastly maintained his self-importance as a world figure of the ultimate artistic magnitude, and, by and by, seemed content to watch others (including family members) twist slowly in the emotionally confused winds that constantly swirled around his circle.

It's a strange tale to be sure, and Friedland and Zellman tell it in utterly exhausting detail, the minutiae of daily events involving lesser personalities cataloged as readily as the bigger moments where Wright is in the forefront. For all his brilliance, Wright led a careless, narrow-minded and (as expressed here) often unkind life, and the long, latter Taliesin chapter finds him at his personal worst. And, while the Fellowship existed ostensibly to maintain his architectural spirit, Wright characteristically soiled those waters by deliberately impeding his students' ability to spread their own professional wings in order to do just that. Less about architecture, and more about genius run amok and the bodies left in its wake, The Fellowship fills an important historical gap in the discussion of American arts while reading like high-toned soap opera.


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The Fellowship

The Fellowship

By Roger Friedland
ISBN 9780060393885

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