By Matthew Hendley
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And it is difficult to imagine how the young Wright could countenance some of the more fantastic creations of his last years. For example, the Guggenheim Museum and Tempe's Gammage Auditorium seem to contravene many Wrightian "organic" principles. Both are visual spectacles, showy and grotesque. Rather than blending, they dominate their surroundings.
Gammage, on which construction was not begun until after Wright's death, may be his goofiest building, originally planned as part of a cultural complex for Baghdad, Iraq. Imagined at its original site--the land of the Arabian Nights--it might make a kind of exotic sense, but at a land-grant university in Arizona?
Like many another American artist, Wright had the capacity to shamelessly reinvent himself and to recast his oeuvre in light of his latest adventure. Perhaps what is most impressive about Wright's career is that more than half of his building took place after 1932, the year he turned 63 and, with Oglivanna, established the Taliesin Fellowship.
At that time, it looked as though Wright's career was over. He was socially ostracized, the Great Depression had dried up his commissions and, perhaps worst of all, Wright's work had fallen out of fashion with the rise of sleek-glass-box-building internationalists like Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. Yet the last quarter-century of Wright's life--his Arizona years--was amazingly productive.
In 1935, Wright would design the famous Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. The next year, he would design the streamlined Johnson Wax building in Racine, Wisconsin, and refine his attempts at designing affordable housing for people of modest means with his first "Usonian" structure. Construction of Taliesin West would begin in 1937. He would begin designing the Guggenheim in 1943, and the Price Tower--his charmingly absurd skyscraper built in the small Oklahoma town of Bartlesville--went up in 1952. He was designing until the end. The project on his drafting table when he died--the Lykes house--was built in 1966 on North 36th Street, at the edge of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve.
@body:Wright's first priority was always the maintenance of the Wright myth. Former apprentice Edgar Tafel says Wright refused to be photographed wearing his glasses, that he would rub graphite shavings into his hair once he began to gray.
"He announced on his 55th birthday that he wasn't going to get any older," Tafel says. "And I think he meant it. He certainly had more vitality, more energy than anyone else. When he got to the point where he actually needed that cane he always carried, he could still shake drawings out his sleeve. Or he liked to give that impression. He was so fast--but I also suspect he did a lot of secret work on those drawings he just dashed off. It looked like he was designing on the spot, but I suspect he had worked them all out in his mind beforehand."
Wright's office chairs were low-slung, to force potential clients to peer up at the diminutive Wright--whose own desk and chair were raised on a platform. These days, according to a former Wright associate who asked for anonymity, tour guides at Taliesin West are instructed to evade questions about Wright's physical stature or his personal life. His stature may explain the crimped feeling of some of Wright's buildings. Sometimes, large people must turn sideways to negotiate his doors, and he had a fondness for low ceilings--at one point, the ceiling in his breakfast room at Taliesin in Wisconsin was a mere six feet high.
David Dodge, a Taliesin Fellow, says of Wright, "He was, well, about five foot eight. He used to say, 'If I were six foot, I might build higher ceilings and bigger doors.' I think he was joking, but I also think there's something to that. If he had been taller, he would have had a different sense of scale."
Wright could be ruthless to those who threatened him. In 1941, Tafel designed a house in Racine, Wisconsin, and--as was customary at the time--split the fee with Wright. Tafel says when the client praised his work--and needled Wright--by noting that the house was built on time and under budget and that the roof didn't leak, the old man became furious.
"He called us all together and said there would be no more clients for students," Tafel says. "He said, 'There will be only one prima donna.' That's exactly the words he used."
Tafel left in tears the next day.
@body:Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Wisconsin, two years after the end of the War Between the States, and died on April 9, 1959. As Edgar Tafel says, his personal life was "messy."
He was married three times, and in 1909, he deserted his first family, running off to Europe with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client. He continued that affair for five years, until Mamah, her two children and four others were murdered by Julian Carleton, a servant, at Wright's house in the Wisconsin countryside--the original Taliesin. Carleton also set fire to the house, destroying the living quarters. After burning the house, he had apparently tried to commit suicide by swallowing acid; he scorched his mouth and throat so badly that he died seven weeks later of starvation while in police custody.