By Ray Stern
By New Times
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By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
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Wright was well known for living the high life and not paying his bills, even at the beginning of his architectural career in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. In the early 1930s, Wright came up with the idea of a Taliesin Fellowship, an apprentice program in which students would pay $500 a year for the privilege of being in the presence of the master and building Taliesin, his rural home in Wisconsin, into Wright's ideal country estate by laboring in its fields and physically erecting its structures. Purportedly, students would be learning the art of architecture by osmosis (there never were any actual architectural classes offered) and developing "spiritually." The apprentices also were expected to design and make art objects for sale, for which they would share in the proceeds. This was Wright's solution for raising money for the mortgage on Taliesin, which was about to be foreclosed on, not to mention providing unpaid grunt labor for farming and construction when skilled workers he hired walked off the job because of nonpayment.
Actually, the whole idea of the Taliesin Fellowship was that of Henricus Theodorus "Dutchy" Wijdeveld, a Dutch architect affiliated with the European Internationalist movement, who had corresponded regularly and eventually visited with Wright, and thought he was going to be appointed Fellowship director. In typical fashion, Wright dismissed Wijdeveld after the unlucky Dutchman had done all the conceptual heavy lifting on the project, thereafter claiming to have been the creator of the Fellowship idea.
According to Roger Friedland, a cultural sociologist and professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and Harold Zellman, an architect and historian of modernist architecture, both of whom spent 10 years researching and writing The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & the Taliesin Fellowship (2006), "Wijdeveld's role was . . . concealed from the public record, and until recently from history. To acknowledge that the very ideas underlying his Fellowship were crafted by a European would have compromised Wright's vision of an organically American community."
In truth, the Fellowship was not particularly unique for its time, since it was basically a re-working of other 19th-century utopian communal living experiments, like the Gurdjieff Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Château Le Prieuré at Fontainebleau-Avon, France. Gurdjieff's philosophy and beliefs — entwined with the metaphysical principles and cosmic secrets of theosophy, as espoused by Russian-born Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky — would play a huge, and not always positive, role in the running of the Fellowship over time.
Charles Robert Ashbee's Arts and Crafts colony in Chipping Campden, England, was an obvious inspiration for Wright. In 1910, Wright had become friends with Ashbee, an architect, designer, and devotee of William Morris, the father of the English Arts and Crafts Movements, who was enamored with the "simple" country life. His craft community was aimed at members learning craft skills to produce and sell beautiful objects in a communal setting, while participating in exercise, music, and theater. All of this was to be repeated at Taliesin, though the craftmaking part of it quickly fell to the wayside there.
The handicraft community of Roycrofters, in East Aurora, New York, started by Elbert Hubbard, a Larkin Soap Company salesman turned writer, artist, and publisher, also was a demonstrable precursor to the Fellowship. An anti-industrialist and pioneer in the field of advertising, Hubbard was a maestro of mass marketing and self-promotion. Wright enthusiastically embraced these two skills, raising to high art blatant self-promotion of himself as genius and architectural messiah to the masses as his career developed.
In addition to Hubbard's self-marketing techniques, Wright also would adopt Hubbard's flamboyant sartorial style, dressing in flowing capes and odd hats, topped off with floppy ties and a walking stick, outfits that one writer has said at times bordered on buffoonery. Especially noteworthy were Wright's high-heeled shoes, worn to add more height to his rather short stature.
In 1904, the architect ended up designing the Larkin Soap Company's five-story administration building in Buffalo, New York, plans for which are on display in PAM's show. The austere red-brick building was noted for many innovations: an early version of air-conditioning; stained-glass windows; double-glazed windows to help control temperature and sound; floors and desktops made from Magnasite, a fireproof material; a built-in central vacuum-cleaning system; built-in office furniture; a gigantic pipe organ, said to be the fifth-largest in the world; suspended toilet bowls hung from the walls; and toilet partitions hung from the ceiling. However, its severe exterior looked like a maximum-security prison. Considered to be a white elephant, it was demolished in 1950.
Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead, got a taste of the weird hierarchical situation at the core of Taliesin when she visited Wright's Wisconsin compound after her best-selling book was published. Many erroneously believe this 1943 opus about a high-minded, renegade architect who baldly refuses to compromise his aesthetic vision and moral values was based on Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Rand actually had never met before writing her wildly popular work of fiction. In fact, Wright declined her request to visit him for inspiration as she was writing The Fountainhead; after reading it, Wright was convinced that the main character was fashioned after himself, and he welcomed the author with open arms.