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Architecture | ARCHITECTURE

At Wright's Taliesin, maybe the walls can talk

September 03, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

IT won't take long for readers of "The Fellowship," an ambitious new study of Frank Lloyd Wright by Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman, to realize that the book is no ordinary exercise in architectural history. Maybe it will happen on Page 8, when the authors describe the teenage Wright daydreaming about sex, drifting into his "moist dream space." Or on Page 17, when they write that the young architect was so entranced watching his mentor Louis Sullivan at the drafting table -- "the languid lines coursing through his ornamental detailing" -- that he became "ashamed by his own pleasure."

It will certainly have become clear by Page 47, when we learn that the mystic Georgi Gurdjieff, a Svengali of sorts for Wright's third wife, Olgivanna, possessed a "feline yet powerful body" and eyes that "could penetrate one's psyche" and "bring a woman to orgasm from across a room."

Wright is in many respects the Abraham Lincoln of architectural history, a figure who has inspired enough books to fill a small library. With "The Fellowship," Friedland, a professor of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara, and Zellman, a Los Angeles architect, enter this crowded field with an unusually detailed account of the architect's unorthodox design process, in particular the role played by the apprentices, many of them gay men, who surrounded Wright at his Taliesin Fellowship in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona. Nine years in the making, the book provides a sustained look at the Fellowship during the period when Wright produced the masterpieces of his late career: Fallingwater, the Johnson Wax building and the Guggenheim Museum.

Yet it is an almost bizarre hybrid, a serious piece of scholarship wrapped in melodrama, spiritualism and sexual innuendo. And if you think that's a charge that will bother the authors, well, think again.

"We tried to have it both ways," Friedland cheerfully admitted, sitting near his coauthor during a recent interview in Zellman's Pacific Palisades living room.

Zellman then pulled out the book's first published review, in BookPage, and proudly pointed out a passage comparing "The Fellowship" to a soap opera.

"We wanted to create a certain intimacy, a sense that the reader is part of the day-to-day life of Wright's Fellowship," Zellman said. "And that's how a soap opera works too."

Theirs is not an entirely new approach to the study of Wright, of course: The architect's life was fodder for the tabloid press and the scolding moralists of his own day, particularly after Wright's lover, Mamah Cheney, and two of her children were killed at Taliesin by a servant in 1914. The Wright who was hopelessly, sometimes cruelly, self-absorbed shows up in nearly every treatment of his work, including Brendan Gill's 1987 biography, Ken Burns' 1998 PBS documentary and even the short volume Ada Louise Huxtable wrote for the Penguin Lives series in 2004.

But the Fellowship itself has never come in for the same level of scrutiny. In part this is due to the tight control that Olgivanna held over Wright's archives until her death in 1985. But it also has much to do, the authors maintain, with a cult of genius among historians as strong as the one that held sway inside Wright's drafting room.

"There's an incredible collection of books on Wright -- something like 1,000 publications altogether," Zellman said. "And most are filtered through this lens of genius. We essentially decided to treat Frank Lloyd Wright as an ordinary person while acknowledging his enormous talent."

As a result, the book describes in great detail not only how the designs for Fallingwater and the Guggenheim came together but also Wright's anti-Semitism, his isolationist politics and the drugs abused by his troubled daughter Iovanna (alcohol, sleeping pills, phenobarbital, daprisal, diet pills and amphetamines). Taliesin and Taliesin West as painted by the authors are hothouses of competition, jealousy and longing -- much of it orchestrated by Olgivanna, who was three decades younger than Wright and who married the architect in 1928.

Some Wright scholars, including Alan Hess, author of "Frank Lloyd Wright: The Houses," among other books on organic architecture, find the approach refreshing. "We need to reinvent Wright for the 21st century," Hess said. "A lot of these stories have been rumored or floating around, but it's fascinating to see them documented and spelled out over the decades."

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