Taliesin I & the Outlaw Years: 1912-1936


The prairie house made Wright a very popular individual in his field. The latter part of this phrase must be emphasized, because his name had not yet seeped into the larger pool of public, mass media consciousness. In the prairie style section, the description centered primarily around the structural aspects of Wright's designs, the significance of the open plan and the disparity between front and rear facades. Because Wright's personality had not yet filtered into the integrity of his designs, this concentration is justified. But as Wright's career progressed, his character gradually came to overshadow his designs. Especially when Wright stole away to Europe with Mamah Borwith Cheney (a client's wife), leaving a devoted wife and family in Oak Park, public and media clamor transformed Wright from a respectable architect into a scandalous rogue.

Even before this scandal hit the front pages, Wright was busy with the work of defining his eccentricity. In his days as a family man, overseeing a respectable architecture firm, Wright struggled to set himself apart from the uniformity of middle class suburbia. As for his personal appearance, Wright's hair grew longer and a certain quirkiness crept into his style of dress. Recalling Wright's Oak Park days, Twombley writes: "His expensive clothes were unusually casual:flowing neckties and smocks, Norfolk jackets, riding breeches, and high-laced boots hardly met suburban expectations" (1).

In the years that followed, Wright's fashion statements would be a continual fascination to the media. Reporters and interviewers loved to write about the clothes he wore, the cars he drove, and the wine he drank. This fascination had little to do with Wright's architecture and much to do with his persona.

This eccentricity was more than skin deep, as Twombley continues:

He was nominally Unitarian... but he rarely attended services.... He was regularly ticketed for driving his custom-equipped automobiles over the speed limit. He laughed too loudly at the theater, boycotted Fourth of July celebrations, ... steered away from politics, never locked his house, and kept late hours (128).

What is important about these seemingly trivial mannerisms is their suggestion of a central component of Wright's persona: a compunction for self-definition and distinction. He enjoyed "sticking out." Thus, he dressed and acted so as to make others notice him. And they did. This conscious act of self definition would be the key to Wright's later ascension to celebrity status.

Perhaps Wright's romantic gallivanting was another more radical attempt at this self definition. It is debatable whether Wright was looking for an entrance into the mass media spotlight. But like the modern day soap opera, Wright's "spiritual hegira" (Wright's phrase, unmistakably) had all of the components of public theatre: daily front page headlines , in which Wright's faithful wife called Cheney a "vampire," and many tearful character witnesses. "That Wright is a victim of a strange infatuation which he has battled for years is the declaration of Mrs. Wright," the Chicago Tribune professed as the story broke (2).

When the dust and ashes of the sensation settled, "Wright" was a social term, used in conjunctions with scandalous gossip. While the media had been busy chasing him around the globe, Wright had entrenched against the hounding newsmen in Spring Green, Wisconsin, the place of his birth. With his loving companion by his side, he proceeded to construct a dwelling which revealed quite a different strain of social ideology than his prairie house. In the face of such harsh criticism, Wright constructed a fortress which he hoped would effectively shield him from the uncharitable attacks upon his private life.

Though it was known as Wright's "love bungalow" to his detractors, Taliesin I stands as distinctly as the prairie house as an architectural masterpiece. But because the client and the architect were the same man, Taliesin reveals a great deal more about Wright than the earlier prairie house, a kind of autobiography in stone and mortar. "As much as a declaration of independence as his recent actions, as much an autobiography as the book he later published, Taliesin is the key to Wright's psychological and intellectual profile in 1911" (3).

A visitor approaching Taliesin I might have felt like a warrior attacking a heavily defended castle, braving moats and hot oil.Wright placed Taliesin on the brow of a hill and surrounded it with impenetrable labyrinths of walled gardens , a far cry from the ornate sociability of the prairie house. The visitor's entrance to the home was at the compete discression of the inhabitant.

Once inside, the visitor's path was continually impeded with formidable walls made of fieldstone. The use of rock not only gave the interior a castle- like starkness. It also allowed Wright to utilize building materials native to the area, conserving construction costs and linking Taliesin to its natural surroundings.

Taliesin I offered no "open plan" to link it to the prairie house. Rooms were remote and compartmentalized. Long windows with overhanging eaves brought the outside in while concealing any glimpse of the interior from the outside.

With Taliesin I, Wright offered yet another architectural assessment of the individual's relationship with the surrounding society. All gestures toward Victorianism were removed. In comparing the prairie home with Taliesin, the interplay between Wright and the American social consciousness emerges. As a young architect, Wright had designed the prairie house as a means of preserving a way of life which he valued, the life of the urban gentry. His clients approved of this style not only because it was appealing but also because Wright himself, in the role of the family man in Oak Park, testified that the lifestyle offered by the prairie house was realistic and appealing.

But the Mamah Borwith scandal compromised Wright's credibility in this act of self-marketing. Wright's middle class clients could no longer subscribe to his philosophy of design without the shadow of hypocrisy hanging over them. In other words, they took their business elsewhere. After all, Wright deserted the very family which the prairie house professed to protect. In the face of this opposition, Wright constructed Taliesin I, a modern day castle to protect his privacy from the relentless visogoths of the media.

Because Wright could no longer rely on commissions from middle class clients to bankroll his expensive tastes, he sought work overseas, competing the gargantuan Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in 1922. Though the structure survived the disastrous earthquake of 1923, Wright's reputation was not so resilient. Temporarily faced with a loss of professional popularity, he became more dependent upon his voice and pen as the dispenser of his philosophy. From his stronghold at Taliesin, Wright unleashed his voice of iconoclasm.

Defending his actions with Mahah Borwith, Wright claimed his adherence to a "higher law" than mere legal and moral convention. "Prohibitions and restraints are for the average," Wright decreed in his Christmas message to the inhabitants of Spring Green. "The ordinary man cannot live without rules to guide his conduct. It is infinitely more difficult to live without [them] but it is what the honest, sincere thinking man is compelled to do (4)." Wright demanded the ultimate "artistic freedom" in his life, obeying no standards but his own.

Wright as the American Iconoclast

It was also during his years at Taliesin that Wright emerged as an outspoken critic in his own field. Because of Wright's professed faith in the doctrine of "organic architecture," the natural interaction of the house with its surroundings, he was horrified by the hulking structures of glass and steel which rose up around him. What we know today as "Modern" architecture seemed a monstrosity to the man who had designed the prairie house and Taliesin. Sargeant personified Wright's iconoclasm in an unusual way, writing, "He has followed Modern architecture as an angry terrier does a nervous cow, nipping at its ankles, barking uproariously at it, worrying it to distraction just to keep clear of its horns (5)."

Needless to say, Wright's comments did not fall lightly upon the ears of their intended targets. After hearing that Wright had called Philip Johnson's house in New Canaan, Connecticut, a house built "for a monkey by a monkey," Johnson took an overt stab at him by calling him the "greatest architect of the nineteenth century." But Wright was avenged when, after Mies Van der Rohe and Johnson had completed the Seagrams Building in NYC, he quipped: "Is Mies still putting up little buildings and leaving them out in the rain? (6)". In other words, the modern skyscraper was a living betrayal of Wright's principles. Instead of the organic simplicity of the prairie house, Mies built hollow facades devoid of organic life.

Of course, Wright payed a price for his insolence. The American Institute of Architects resented Wright's fork tongued, and denied him their Gold Medal Award until 1954, when his fame made further resistance ludicrous. Before Wright received his posthumous award from the AIA, Winthrop Sargeant wrote in Time that "He has never become a member of the American Institute of Architects, some say because the institute is afraid to invite him lest he refuse with a violent public denunciation." No architect, no matter how old or revered, was safe from Wright's forked tongue. Michelangelo, creator of the Sistine Chapel and the statue of David was "merely a sculptor," "a man who hurled the Pantheon on top of the Parthenon (7)."

Wright's attacks on modern urban architecture reveal his abhorrence of the city. To Wright, the city represented all that was immoral and crude. Wright was essentially Jeffersonian in his assessment of the American social system. Every man had an intrinsic right to the land, which was a physical manifestation of freedom and liberty. New York City's Radio Music Hall was the "ultimate monstrosity, Los Angeles' office buildings a "dish of tripe," and Boston a city of crumbling rat traps, "pitiable remnants of a degenerate culture that was dead 500 years ago, before it left England (8)." In this period, Wright's attacks were restricted primarily to the realm of architecture, though they would later wrestle with American politics and culture.

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