Frank Lloyd Wright Exhibit at Phoenix Art Museum Misses the Point

Even back at his Oak Park studio, Wright was always surrounded by a fawning coterie of mostly young, often unpaid acolytes from well-heeled families ready, willing, and able to do his bidding, drafting, rendering, and, on occasion, underwriting. Wright could be seductively charming, sucking his hapless targets into doing things they really didn't want to do. He was known to borrow money from his followers, even though he would owe them back wages. More often than not, he would outright lie to his clients about the cost of constructing one of his masterpieces, even the ones he touted as being low-cost. Then, in Jekyll-and-Hyde fashion, he would turn on them, becoming verbally abusive and outright dismissive.

In 1910, the architect abruptly left his wife, Catherine, and six children, who lived in Oak Park, for Mamah (pronounced "MAY-ma") Borthwick Cheney, the wife of one of his residential housing clients, whom he thereafter ensconced at Taliesin in Wisconsin. At the time, it was a huge scandal covered by area newspapers and did not end well. In August 1914, while Wright was away, Mamah and her two children were murdered at Taliesin after Julian Carlton, a deranged family servant from Barbados, locked all the doors at the rural complex, doused it with gasoline, and set fire to it. As she and the children fled from the burning house, they were hacked to death with an ax, with other people locked inside dying as Taliesin burned to the ground.

Within two months after the tragedy, Wright was at it again, though he still was not divorced from Catherine, who continued to hope he would give up his philandering ways and return home. This time, he became enamored with Maude "Miriam" Noel, a wealthy sculptress who moved in with him and contributed most generously to rebuilding Taliesin; she eventually manifested disturbing signs of schizophrenia and allegedly was addicted to morphine.

Taliesin West in 1955
courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum
Taliesin West in 1955
Project plans for the Lenkurt Electric Company building in San Carlos, California (circa 1955)
courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum
Project plans for the Lenkurt Electric Company building in San Carlos, California (circa 1955)

Location Info


Phoenix Art Museum

1625 N. Central Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

Category: Museums

Region: Central Phoenix


"Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture of the 21st Century" will be display through April 29. Admission is $12 for adults.
Call 602-257-1222 or
visit »web link.

Despite this, after Catherine agreed to a divorce, Wright married Noel in 1923, only to become involved in 1924 with Olgivanna Lazovich Hinzenberg. Olgivanna was a 27-year-old dancer, daughter of a Montenegrin chief justice, who was married to an architect with whom she had a daughter, Svetlana. Wright had met her serendipitously at a ballet performance in Chicago. Wright was close to 60 at the time. His affair with Olgivanna sent Noel into a tailspin, especially when Olgivanna got pregnant with Wright's daughter, Iovanna, and a round of acrimonious battling began, including Noel's having Wright busted for violation of the Mann Act, which prohibited the transport of a female across state lines for "immoral purposes."

Eventually, Noel caved in to a divorce, and Wright married Olgivanna and adopted her daughter, Svetlana. Svetlana would marry one of his loyal apprentices, Wes Peters, bear two sons, and die with one of the children in a car accident at Taliesin in 1946. Years later, Wright and Olgivanna would set up Peters with Svetlana Alliluyeva, only daughter of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, who defected to the United States in 1967; their marriage was short-lived, lasting only 22 months, since Peters was more married to the Fellowship than he was to any woman. Wright's daughter, Iovanna, would become a hardcore follower of Georgi Gurdjieff, like her mother, and marry multiple times; later in life, she was diagnosed with manic depression and eventually institutionalized.

Olgivanna, who would rule Taliesin long after Wright's death in 1959, was obsessed with Georgi Gurdjieff, a Gypsy-esque Armenian mystic, and his occult teachings. In fact, she had parted ways with her first husband and child, becoming the manager of Gurdjieff's Institute outside of Paris, before she moved to America and met Wright. An odd duck, Gurdjieff apparently was as charismatic as Wright and slept with many of his young female followers, who got pregnant for the purpose of populating the world with Seekers of Truth. Olgivanna was convinced that Gurdjieff's mystical dances and orphic teachings contained the key to powerful secret knowledge of the universe.

Early films of Gurdjieffian dance performances can be viewed today online and illuminate just what these soul-expanding dances entailed. To be honest, they look like a hallucinatory combination of military maneuvers, tai chi at 78 RPM, Jazzercise, synchronized swimming without the water, and Sufi dervish dances.

Wright appreciated and supported Olgivanna's passion for Gurdjieff's teachings, but only to a point. She wanted to see Taliesin turned into one of the guru's centers; he would have none of it, though he allowed her to hold classes and performances at both Taliesins and publically supported Gurdjieffian beliefs. There was room for only one king at the complex, however — and there was no question as to who reigned supreme. Gurdjieffian doctrine would badly divide the Fellowship in later years, especially after Wright's death, driving a destructive wedge between believers and non-believers, with believers being favored and non-believers marginalized.

Overall, Wright ended up being more sculptor than architect in his approach to creating functional structures. Though many of his projects look great on paper, they are not very utilitarian, working better as academic exercises than real-life structural solutions. Wright's well-documented abhorrence of certain amenities in residential structures alone dooms his designs in the 21st century. A palpable lack of storage space (which the architect railed against for decades), window screens, and privacy window coverings of any kind really don't lend themselves to today's post-modern lifestyle, with its emphasis on privacy and material acquisition. Not to mention that Wright often favored ridiculously low ceilings, narrow doors and hallways, and tiny bedrooms that have been compared more than once to ship's cabins.

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