The Taliesin Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & the Taliesin Fellowship

The Taliesin Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & the Taliesin Fellowship

Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman
NY: HarperCollins, 2006.Hardcover, $34.95, 704 pages.

Roger Friedland, a cultural sociologist, and Howard Zellman, an architect, have written a very good book about a strange and little known subject, the Taliesin Fellowship of Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright, himself, is certainly well-known through his buildings, his writings on architecture, his autobiography, and a number of other biographies. Oddly enough, however, until Friedland and Zellman published The Fellowship, little was known of the school that Wright set up in the depths of the Great Depression, ostensibly to train the cream of American youth to be "organic" architects.

Building had come to an abrupt stop across the country as America sank into the great economic depression of the1930s. There was no architectural work to be had anywhere by anyone, and to Wright, with his extravagant ways and adverse publicity and notoriety of his personal life, the Depression was an unmitigated disaster. But Wright had an answer, an answer perhaps born of desperation and unlikely coincidence, but a brilliant solution for all of that. Wright had toyed for several years with the idea of opening an architectural school at Taliesin, his estate in Wisconsin. After all, his spinster aunts had made a living from the old Hillside Home School on the Taliesin property. As it turned out, however, the "Fellowship," would not be an ordinary school, not even an architectural apprenticeship under his direction, as Wright had at first thought. It was to be indirectly, but inextricably, linked to the ideas of that other extraordinary man, G. I. Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff seems to have been an incomprehensible mixture of self-appointed messiah, visionary genius and mystical seer. Acquainted from an early age with the magical beliefs and powers of the peasants among whom he was raised, he was absorbed in all aspects of the occult. There is little doubt that he possessed remarkable magical powers, which were carefully cultivated throughout his life. He was, in fact, a magus, or magician in the old sense of the word and he had a messianic message, simple in essence. We are all asleep, he taught, lost in the mechanical repetition of response patterns of behavior. Freedom is to be found in awakening, in becoming aware of who we are, and what we are. This may be achieved through "the Work," a system of constant mental and physical challenges whereby a student may be shaken into a state of higher awareness. An essential part of the Work was the performance of sacred dances that were designed to align the dancer with the mathematical laws of the cosmos. One of the students and dancers that had followed him on his long journey from Tiflis to Paris was Olgivanna Hinzenberg, who eventually became the third wife of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The authors point out that Wright and Gurdjieff had much in common, and there were "uncanny correspondences in their thinking." Both, for instance, used the term "organic": Gurdjieff to refer to a harmony with cosmic forces and Wright to his architecture. Both were also inspired by forms found in nature, and both were devoted to the beauty of Gothic art. Moreover, Wright was already aware of Gurdjieff and his ideas through Zona Gale, a Gurdjieff follower.

Wright was desperate for money to pay his debts, hold on to Taliesin, and continue to enjoy his lavish life-style. He capitalized on the beauty of his estate and his fame and reputation as an architect, by offering "apprenticeships" to those who would pay for the privilege of living at Taliesin and working under his direction. The students came and paid, and the scheme proved highly profitable. However, the school now called the Fellowship was not what many of them had been led to expect. For one thing, an apprenticeship implies the presence of a master with whom one works and learns, but Wright, at that time, had no work. Olgivanna, however, was eager to incorporate the ideas of Gurdjieff into the structure of the school. What resulted was a curious amalgam whereby the total reeducation of the students along lines established at the Priory somehow became the primary goal.

The great strength of the book lies in the way Friedland and Zellman build up a picture of life as it was lived in the ivory tower that the Fellowship became for both the Wrights and the apprentices. Through the stories of the apprentices as they reacted to Taliesin and interacted with the Wrights and through a careful description of the succession of events, both within the Fellowship, and in the outside world, that shaped and influenced life within the walls, we begin to sense what a strange place the Fellowship must have been. Most of the apprentices were young men and it seems that the women applicants were largely discouraged. Wright was similarly an outspoken anti-Semite, but depended upon Jewish clients and Jewish apprentices who deny ever experiencing discrimination at Taliesin. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wright urged the apprentices to resist the draft. Most of them did out of loyalty to Wright while an unquestioning acceptance of whatever he said or was even believed to think, became an absolute requirement for those who wished to remain at Taliesin.

Gurdjieff died in October, 1949, but nevertheless continued to be a force in the Fellowship through Olgivanna and her daughter Iovanna. As Wright's health declined in his last few years, Olgivana moved to take more and more control of the Fellowship. Immediately after her husband's death, she seized control of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, under which the Fellowship was organized. The Foundation, under Olgivanna, continued the architectural practice, but her chief interest was forwarding the ideas of her master, G. I. Gurdjieff. The death of her husband gave her the free hand that she always wanted to teach Gurdjieff's principles as she understood them, and the authority to shape the lives of those within the Fellowship as one who had received the light directly from the master.

The authors point out that the Fellowship—with all its faults and problems—and Wright—with the enormous ego that the Fellowship fed—were justified by the buildings designed and constructed in the last decades of his astonishing career. Friedman and Zellman cite Fallingwater, the Johnson Wax Administration Building, and the Guggenheim Museum as great architectural icons that could not have come into being without the emotional and financial support of the Fellowship and the Gurdjieffian philosophy that influenced Wright through his wife Olgivanna.

Herbert Bangs

This reviewer is a retired architect and author of The Return of Sacred Architecture (Inner Traditions 2006). He also met Frank Lloyd Wright while visiting Taliesin during the heyday of the Fellowship.