Roger Friedland & Harold Zellman, Harper Perennial, New York, 2007.REVIEWS
“A great contribution not only to Wright scholarship but also to our understanding of how even great artists depend on, and are in part defined by, the nameless standing just behind them.” Boston Globe.
“You can’t top the material for richness: genius, sex, spirituality, madness, money, mania.” USA Today.
“Just when you thought there was nothing new to be learned about the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, [this} massive, gossipy and yet compulsively readable new book proves you wrong.” Chicago Sun-Times.
“MESMERIZING” -Ken Burns.
Yet another book on FLW: when will they ever stop? Is there a sense of nostalgia lingering in the constant rebirth of interest in the past that we seem scared to let go of? What is it about our present that we need to look backwards? Are we so unsure of ourselves? So unhappy? Publications on Wright just keep appearing on the lower shelves of bookshops under ‘W,’ never the author. Sadly most of them seem to be collations of big, cliché, colourful coffee-table images introduced with large titles using the familiar FLW-style font and his red square. THE FELLOWSHIP looks to be yet another of these books cashing in on the popularity of this ‘bigger-than-life,’ self-promoting American architect of another era. The book is large enough, in thickness at least - 690 pages - and carries the iconic image of the man on its cover, the classic one taken from under the ground: the location of the camera preferred by little men. Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard comes to mind. It was his choice too.
But this book is indeed different. For once the reviews do not exaggerate. Here the usual promotional hyperbole that normally looks as though it has been scripted by the publisher only to cleverly cheat customers, is replaced by accurate analysis. The book is gossipy: the small hero wore platform shoes! It has a chapter on Taliesin’s ‘sex club.’ It clarifies the surprising role of the mystic Georgi Gurdjeiff and his followers in Taliesin – and that of Mrs. Wright: “The wicked witch is dead,” thought Diane Snodgrass when she heard the news of Olgivanna’s death. While not describing genius, the book spins a gossamer web around the experience of being Wright and living and working with him. It details the many money problems of the practice. It begins and ends with family madness and is filled with serial stories of mania in between. Open the cover and there is a full page of reviews that add to that on the front cover and those on the back of the book: so many, but each so true. The book is captivating; it does change the way one looks at and thinks about Wright, his work and his Fellowship, and adds to the record of this past, albeit at times extraordinary and disquieting.
There is no nostalgia here – just the rawness of the story. It represents ten year’s research by the authors, one a cultural sociologist, the other an architect. Yet the text is not schizophrenic. Both authors considered each written word; each kept the other on track; each broadened the other’s understanding; and when both found themselves floundering, they sought out the help of those who knew. The book is an example of why we need to look back. History has a habit of being the summarised story as told by the promoter - and Wright was good at this. The words shatter his mythologies and reveal the experience of being there - as described by those who participated.
Knowing that everyday life is so much more complex than any description can expound, the book can only touch on a few highlights of the time, leaving one to ponder the depths of the enormous gaps around these events. The astonishing thought is that, if this book is merely a schematic overview - as it must be - then what on earth must the full Fellowship experience have really been like? Mesmerizing - yes. We need to look back from our present so that we can know more of the past - more accurately - as we come to face our future and consider how we might prepare ourselves for it, or else we live by a lie. Some quotes from the book can best illustrate why this is so:
Wright was always in a good mood when he arrived there (in the small studio – only eight drafting tables for twenty-three apprentices), often humming a tune. He was forever repeating one of his favourite jokes – some of them “’darky’ stories,” Howe recalled, “in the days before you didn’t talk down blacks.” Howe remembered how Wright “would mount the stairs leading to the areas above the vault in which the Japanese prints were kept, sit at the old Steinway piano that was there, and roll out a few bars of Bach-Beethoven-type improvisations” before going to work on a drawing.
Wright told the apprentices that he heard Beethoven in his head as he designed. “When you listen to Beethoven,” he told them, “you are listening to a builder. You are seeing him take a theme, a motif, a building with it. . . . Building is the same thing.” And indeed there are clear parallels between music his father had taught him to appreciate and the architecture he created as an adult. Beethoven composed in modular fashion, particularly his later works, building up from small units known as motives, rather than from a larger melodic or lyrical line. Similarly, Wright drafted up his architecture on a grid, using simple modular forms he repeated and varied throughout the entire edifice, achieving what he called a “symphonic” unity. From his use of what Wright considered “integral ornament,” to his rejection of the symmetrical balance of the symphony in favour of codas that were often rich in thematic content, Beethoven offered a rich vein of inspiration to an architect eager to transcend the old symmetries of classical architecture.
. . the Wrights had no tolerance for aesthetic imperfection. For Frank Lloyd Wright, ugliness was a sin. He strove to make life’s every aspect beautiful, a compulsion he imbibed during his four years in Japan. The importance the Japanese put on beautiful form was to him a “song of heaven.” He was thrilled by the way they made mundane life beautiful, converted profane daily tasks into ceremonial rite. Every human practice, including an individual’s posture, held a possibility for pleasurable form.
Svetlana also pitched in to help Olgivanna train her putative replacement, the doe-eyed Kay Schneider, showing her how to clean the house and to make tea. Together they waxed the cypress floors, vacuumed the stones (of Taliesin East). “Kay,” Svetlana instructed, “it’s not what you do; it’s the way that you do it.” What was important was the purity of one’s intent, the banishment of negative emotion, feelings that would inevitably be projected into one’s work.
. . . . and architecture?
Wright saved his venom for America’s young modern architects. In a magazine article he wrote alone and published while he was still recuperating in Arizona, he condemned the typical young American modern architect as so ambitious and selfish “that he would not hesitate to kill his own grandmother with an axe” if necessary. These young upstarts, he wrote, had achieved premature recognition – acclaim that had taken him fifteen years to earn.
The title of that article was “What the Cause of Architecture Needs Most,” and given its hostile tone the answer he gave was startling: The cause of architecture, he said, needed love. Always sensitive to his age, particularly given his recent brush with death, he turned the tables on his younger colleagues, labelling their behaviour as “aged,” his own as youthful. While they hungered for fame and material success – drives, he implied, of the elderly – he operated out the spirit of youth, “the spirit of love.”
To Wright, the greatest sources of “refreshment” were not contemporary trends in architecture, but the principles of civilizations far from the modern West – and, above all, nature itself, unspoiled and unravelled by denizens of the metropolis.
With its savage beauty and the remnants of a highly spiritual native culture, the Arizona desert had both these elements. And Wright believed that regular sojourns here would leads him to fresh architectural visions that would counter the degeneracy he saw around him – on the one side the architectural submission to the machine, on the other the modernist artists glorying in an animistic primitivism. “Now,” he told a friend about the Arizona camp, “mankind needs refreshment afforded by the conscious return to the verities of being – returning to Nature not only in that early obvious sense but with more prophetic understanding and appreciation.”
In the Arizona desert, Wright hoped to develop a new set of forms, one that would push architecture beyond the European modernists. All he needed was a chance to build something here – an opportunity he had been awaiting for decades.
WHITE FORMICA AND STAINLESS STEEL
Despite his enthusiasm for Wright, Johnny (Hill) was apprehensive. “I knew so little about him that I was expecting just to learn to love white Formica and stainless steel and all these . . . things. And I gritted my teeth.” When he arrived with his parents at Spring Green in May 1938, though, Johnny looked around and did something he had never done before: He cried. “I had never let go and cried in my life,” he said. “But it was so beautiful and answered every kind of thing that I loved . . . I felt as though I had arrived home.”
VITAMINS FOR THE SOUL
Johnny (Hill) learned interior decoration from the master. “One of the things that he did for relaxation,” Johnny recalled, “was putter around with the objects d’art in the house and rearrange them . . . And I would do that with him, sort of like a shadow.” “We must make little rhythms ,” Wright told him, “so each looks better because of its neighbors. Making pleasing assemblies can be vitamins for the soul.”
. . . .if only our art galleries and museums would take note.
SNACKS FOR REAL MEN
Homosexuality, in Wright’s view, was a forbidden and dangerous refreshment, a degenerative snack that could be fatal to one’s manhood. And modern art, at least Picasso’s and Duchamp’s branch of it, was a regression to primitive forms – of same-sex desire and childlike bodily attraction. Real modernism – his modernism, otherwise known as organic architecture – was an aesthetic for real men.
Frank Lloyd Wright cast himself as an image of American manhood –
“Quantity vanquishes quality.”
“The little Philly-Johnson pansy-bunch and apostates,” Wright wrote his new son-in-law, “are all the enemy in sight,” clinging to the “provincial notion that American culture comes from abroad. They are too damn near right – but for us.”
. . . it is something Australia knows of too.
The start of the museum’s construction (Guggenhein, N.Y.) in May (1956) revealed just what a ragtag affair Taliesin was. The only telephone at Taliesin West was in Wright’s private office, unavailable to the apprentices charged with fielding questions from the contractor. And if ever a project was likely to generate questions, the Guggenheim was it. Eventually, they worked out a system: When a problem arose, the contractor would notify Taliesin by telegram. After Western Union drove the message to Taliesin, a group of apprentices would roll up the drawings, drive to Scottsdale, park next to a phone booth, unroll the drawings on the hood of the , drop in a handful of coins, and call New York with the answer.
. . . those were the days! It just shows that technology plays no role in the quality of outcomes. It is something that we should remember every day as we sit in front of our computers, silently praising ourselves on our clever gadgets and their possibilities that we believe position us at the forefront of history – best of all - as if clever tools can change outcomes for the better.