I got the chance to take a rather unusual tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s home earlier this fall with Madison tree specialist, Bruce Allison who happens to be the Arborist-on-retainer for Taliesin and his friend Tony Puttnam, a Wright apprentice who came to Taliesin in 1953. Puttnam regaled us with stories of trying to sleep in his dorm while Wright played the piano upstairs at all hours and of scintillating dinner parties and concerts and world travel with and for Wright. His memories of living and working at Taliesin from the age of 19 were punctuated by Allison, who talked about consulting with Olga Wright about the aging cedar trees that were taking over her patio and mediating between factions of disciples who agonized about protecting an oak tree planted by Wright versus preserving the building it was threatening to destabilize.
The tour was a fascinating behind the scenes look at a beautiful set of buildings without being chivied along by a tour guide on a schedule. I really enjoyed wandering around on a rainy afternoon taking an inordinate number of pictures.
I have extremely mixed feelings about Frank Lloyd Wright and his buildings. I spent many years despising him for his highly objectionable personal life before realizing that its not really possible to be an architect and refuse to acknowledge some of his design genius. His legacy is un-impeachable; as a design visionary, as a natural builder, as a place-based architect and as a maker of beautiful, highly crafted places, he can’t be denied. Still he was much less commendable in his relationships, both with his families (in the plural), his clients and his “apprentices.” And he tended to build highly impractical buildings, far more interested in pushing the envelope of design than getting his buildings “right” or even particularly livable.
A Brief History of Taliesin
Referring to 2011 as the centennial of Taliesin seems a little arbitrary to me – the first building on the property was actually completed in 1887; Wright designed the three story shingle style school for his aunt on their family property near Spring Green.1 1911 was the year in which Wright started drawing a house for his mother in the same valley which eventually became his own 2 but I’m not sure construction even began in that year.
In any case, Taliesin was Wright’s life time labor of love, the “center of [his] idyllic world” for 26 years until he began to alternate annually between it and his second home in Arizona at Taliesin West in 1937.3 Every year saw some renovation or new construction on the buildings and grounds and three times fire consumed significant areas of the compound which had to be re-built. One could argue that Wright himself agreed with me about his questionable life choices. In 1949, he said, “Each time the fire destroyed Taliesin, we were able to stop it before it came to the studio, right there at that door. It is as if God questioned my character, but not my work.”4
Building with the Land
Building his home and studio on the brow of a hill in a wide Wisconsin valley was a significant break from his previous urban and suburban designs and Wright spread himself gloriously, integrating his buildings and courtyards into the landscape. Taliesin is the perfect demonstration of Wright’s “organic” architecture. As Puttnam explained to us, this meant “an architecture which is empathetic to nature and relates to its needs; connected to the outdoors in integral ways.”
The fact remains that he built that city, not on rock and roll, but on unpaid labor, actually the labor of people paying him for the privilege. Wright and his third wife, Olgivanna, innovated a design studio cum school cum commune where in students (often trained architects and engineers) would pay to come and work at Taliesin with Wright. They not only worked as draughtsmen in Wright’s office but in constructing, repairing and cleaning the buildings, working in the fields and in the kitchen to keep the compound operational.
I can be idealistic and say that perhaps Taliesin was a healthy and beautiful intentional community where everyone participated, Wright learned alongside his students and architects worked on a farm because of some sort of egalitarian value for hard work and local food. But I’m not really inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. Wright’s cousin, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, compared the tuition paying Taliesin Fellowship to “slave labor with refinements undreamed of by Simon Legree” and described “spurious opulence in the midst of near-starvation.”5
I don’t really know what to think of the Taliesin Fellowship – I’m resistant to the praises of Wright’s remaining disciples and reluctant to credit him as a great man simply because he designed great buildings. But at the importance of his design legacy can’t be denied. And I used his Usonian houses as an inspiration for my thesis work. For the moment I’ll simply leave you to enjoy these images of a rainy day in Spring Green, WI.
Also, I’m using the Gallery feature for the first time.
Everyone, be impressed.