The news in early June came on what would have been Frank Lloyd Wright’s 138th birthday. The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Scottsdale, Arizona, which is part of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, had been issued a warning by the Higher Learning Commission—its accreditation endangered, its student body now down to ten pupils, its finances in shambles. But this was less surprising than the fact that the school still exists at all.
Wright founded what he called the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932, when his own financial prospects were dismal, as they had been throughout much of the 1920s. Having seen the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, his former boss, die in poverty not many years earlier, Wright was forestalling his own prospective oblivion. Considered a virtual has-been (“as an architect he has little to contribute,” concluded John Cushman Fistere in Vanity Fair in 1931, and Fistere was not the first to say so), Wright created the fellowship—tuition $675, raised to $1,100 in 1933, more than at Yale or Harvard—to indoctrinate aspiring architects in his gospel of organic architecture, for which they would do hours of daily chores, plant crops, wash Wright’s laundry, and entertain him and his guests as well as one another in the evenings with musicals and amateur theatricals. “Music is architecture at Taliesin,” Wright wrote in the school brochure for 1934, “just as architecture is a kind of music.”
The brochure is a typical Wright document, exasperating, egocentric, rambling, poetic, weirdly humane—like everything he did, an inspired advertisement for himself, with its list of “Friends of the Fellowship” at the back (Albert Einstein, Dorothy Parker, Walter Gropius, Carl Sandburg, Leopold Stokowski, among others), and with its pitch for Taliesin as a utopian retreat from “white-collar” America, which, Wright declares, had sold its soul to “the machine,” turned soft, become “unfit”—which had produced a generation of young people who were “over-educated and under-cultured.” Taliesin would set them straight, he pro-phesied (his language leans noticeably on words like “manhood” and “impotence”), just as he himself had been set straight by some back-breaking summers of labor as a boy on his uncle James’s farm. More than a throwback to his upbringing, Wright’s vision was carefully constructed to appeal to progressive political fashions, but on Wright’s terms, proposing a kind of five-year plan at Taliesin for the creation of a small, independent society made better through his architecture.
Whatever Wright’s financial motives may have been, for a time, until his death and for some period afterward, the fellowship became a fascinating experiment in agrarian, communal habitation—self-reliant, empha-sizing crafts, with a moral stress on good works and production that was “organic,” a vague concept indicating harmony with nature. Cynics may have deemed it a money-making scheme by Wright but many young people, including Edgar Kaufmann Jr., the MoMA curator and department store heir whose family commissioned Fallingwater from Wright, saw it as a saving grace and guide to their lives. Taliesin reflected Wright’s view of himself against the world.…
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