Photo courtesy Taliesin Preservation, Inc.
In the spring of 1911, architect Frank Lloyd Wright began constructing a cottage for his mother on a property she’d purchased west of Madison, Wisconsin. Though already well-established as an architect, it was a lean period for him professionally. After working with the architect Louis Sullivan in Chicago, Wright had gone out on his own and built the first of his prairie homes. The designs brought him international acclaim, with their long horizontal lines, broad roofs, and spacious interiors.
But despite early success, Wright’s commissions dwindled after he became involved with the wife of a client, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, and left his wife and six children to visit Europe with his new lover. He returned to Chicago with a reputation and without a studio. His mother, Anna, commissioned the cottage, but offered it to him before a final blueprint was complete, realizing that he needed a place of his own. The house became the first project on the Taliesin estate, where Wright would develop one of the nation’s foremost architectural apprenticeships, and which would serve as a laboratory for the innovative designs that would make him the most famous architect in America.
A hundred years after Wright embarked on Taliesin’s construction, it can be hard to believe that some of his designs are as old as they are. The buildings remain stunning and unusual today: the square jaws of the Robie House jutting across a flat Chicago lawn, the Guggenheim Museum’s white helix nestled into upper Manhattan, the cantilevered rooms and walkways of Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, which extend both peacefully and perilously across lichen, rocks, and rushing water.
These designs remain relevant in part because they continue to respond to contemporary concerns. How might an architect build homes that are both beautiful and environmentally attuned? Of and for local communities? Affordable? Before discussions about greening the American lifestyle pervaded public dialogue, Frank Lloyd Wright was leading (by today’s standards and terminology) a relatively “sustainable” life, farming with his students and scouting the area for natural materials to use to build his home.
The story of Taliesin and Wright’s time spent there is being celebrated this year with months of tours, receptions, photography, concerts, and a number of exhibits including artifacts and archival photos.
This past weekend saw the opening of a retrospective of Wright’s career at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century focuses on Wright’s philosophy and legacy, showcasing drawings, photographs, and models, some built by Wright himself. It also features drawings for some of his lesser-known projects, including several plans for suburban developments, never realized, that highlight Wright’s pragmatism and imagination.
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Located just outside the town of Spring Green, and close to the area where his mother’s Welsh family settled after arriving in America, Wright built Taliesin on a site he knew intimately, having spent his boyhood summers with relatives nearby. His affection for the region and his familiarity with its characteristics influenced the building’s design; he would construct it into — and not atop — the hillside, and without gutters so that in the winter, “icicles by invitation might beautify the eaves,” a feature he described in his autobiography. Wright built the foundations and many of the walls with limestone from a nearby quarry, and he mixed sand from the Wisconsin River into plaster walls, giving them a golden color. The house was largely self-sufficient, boasting a generator, garden, and artesian well. On Sundays, its residents held church service in their own chapel. He named the building Taliesin, Welsh for “Shining Brow.”
The house embodied a philosophy he termed “organic architecture,” characterized by designs that reflected nature and interacted with it, both in form and in its materials. Wright identified three components in an ideal building: time, place and humanity.
By “time,” Wright really meant technology. Utilizing new industrial capabilities and materials, he believed he could create buildings that reinvented perceptions about architecture.
“He’s living in a time of rapid change, and he loves it, it’s clear,” says Brady Roberts, one of the curators of the MAM exhibit. “The technology allowed him much more ambitious forms.”
Place also dictated the contours of his designs. Wright believed that a building’s surroundings should improve it, and that it, in turn, should improve its surroundings. He incorporated large plane glass windows to look out on the environment, and used local materials to bind his buildings to their construction site.
If that site was in an unattractive area, Wright invented ways to make the spaces beautiful, flooding cathedral-like office buildings with natural light from skylights. Structures like the SC Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin offered impressive, luminous workspaces in locations that were largely unexceptional.
The dedication to maximizing the site’s potential for beauty was related to his third tenant: humanity. He believed that a building ought to enhance an individual’s well-being in its loveliness and through its ability to facilitate a connection with the landscape. The home’s details were an important component. Decorations connected a home to cultures and histories, unique additions that could shape unique experiences within a structure.
Wright also appreciated ceremony. Many of the individuals who commissioned homes were able to participate in its creation in some way. At one house built in Oberlin, Ohio, family members screwed ornamental embellishments to the lip of the overhanging roof when they moved in.
“The amazing thing about Frank Lloyd Wright, is that he is so consistent in these principles but it allowed him so much variation of design,” says Roberts. “He was endlessly imaginative throughout his career. He died as the Guggenheim Museum was being completed and it’s one of the most brilliant museum buildings in the world.”
Wright rebuilt and reinvented Taliesin many times, at first out of tragic necessity.
In August of 1914, a servant murdered seven residents, including Borthwick and her children, and set fire to the premises while Wright was in Chicago on business.
Distraught, Wright moved into the back of the house, which had been spared, and began to rebuild. He enlarged the studio, and added tall windows along the northern and southern ends of the house. He expanded the living quarters and he filled the house with statues, rugs and pottery that he had acquired in Japan.
Taliesin went through a third transition after a second fire in 1925, after lightning struck the house and ignited the wiring inside its walls. As he did after the first fire, Wright threw himself into rebuilding the estate, writing in his autobiography, “Taliesin lived wherever I stood!” The subsequent reconstruction brought notable changes: Wright added a balcony and raised the ceilings of the living room. He added a second story and decided to both expand and partially enclose the porch, integrating the outdoors with the living room. Photographs that document these reincarnations will be on display this spring at Taliesin, as well as some remains from the earlier buildings.
Wright continued to augment, adjust, and reconstruct the property for many years — renovations that were possible, in large part, because of the many fellows and apprentices at the property. In 1932, Wright formally launched the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin, inviting twenty-three apprentices to live and work on the estate. Students worked completed construction projects at Taliesin, farmed the property, cooked for one another, and did other maintenance.
Wright’s third wife, Olgivanna Lazovich, a dancer from Montenegro, was integral to the program, which encouraged students to become not only well-versed in construction and design, but also in music and the arts. Students were encouraged to pursue singing and performance, and the estate regularly hosted performers and concerts.
After working in the studio, apprentices were eventually placed around the country to work on site at a Wright commission, developing contacts and relationships in various regions, and establishing themselves as architects.
“A lot of the apprentices, when they got those opportunities, had a nice rounded education,” says Keiran Murphy, Taliesin Preservation’s historical researcher. “Plus they could play musical instruments and cook for forty people if they had to.”
Students created renderings, construction drawings, and models on the property, and oversaw the construction of some of Wright’s seminal works, including the Johnson Wax headquarters, Fallingwater, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Monona Terrace in Madison. In 1935, the School spent its first winter in Arizona, and in 1937 the students helped Wright construct Taliesin West in Scottsdale, where the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation is based today.
Learning by doing had its advantages, as well as its disappointments.
“Some former apprentices have described Wright’s attitudes towards his apprentices as benign neglect,” says Murphy. “He kind of threw them into these projects and they had to figure it out on their own, and he left them alone for the most part, in that case.”
In January, the final living Frank Lloyd Wright trained architect, Edgar Tafel, died at the age of 91.
Taliesin was the site of experimental construction practices, not just experimental design.
“We believe that Frank Lloyd Wright was using the normal tools of an architect to cantilever, hold up walls, hold up windows, hold up roofs,” says Murphy. “But he was also, we think, using plaster as load-bearing material, glass as a load-bearing material. The glass of the windows appears to help hold things up.
“There are some things at Taliesin that from a normal engineering standpoint should not be standing and they are, which leads us to believe that he’s doing the same thing at other buildings in ways that we don’t fully understand.”
Explicitly or not, Wright tested designs at Taliesin that reappeared in projects around the country. In 1943, he added a skylight to his kitchen, hoping to convince Solomon Guggenheim that naturally lighting could sufficiently light the Guggenheim museum and its artworks.
But by the end of Wright’s life, Taliesin’s mutations had moved beyond the needed or practical improvements; it had become like a physical notebook of ideas.
Centennial events at Taliesin run from April 28th until October 15th, and are organized by Taliesin Preservation in cooperation with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. “Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century” is on exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum until May 15.