Frank Lloyd Wright's popularity is high again right now, with two popular novels about his relationships with women (Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, and The Women, by T.C. Boyle), the non-fiction account of the murders at Taliesin, Death in a Prairie House by William R. Drennan, and the 50th anniversary of the Guggenheim Museum keeping his name in the news.
Obviously, Frank Lloyd Wright was more than an architect. He was a huge personality. His ideas about the human need for shelter, the life of the city and suburbia, and best methods of education were utopian. Wright's intentional communities, the Taliesin Fellowship of apprentices at Taliesin and Taliesin West, fit into the American quest for such living arrangements from Brook Farm to New Harmony, Ohio, to the communes of the 1960s and today's co-housing projects. So an insightful study on Wright and his communities could be useful, even in the sea of books produced about his life, work, and philosophy.
This new study, Communities of Frank Lloyd Wright: Taliesin and Beyond, by Myron A. Marty (Northern Illinois University Press) wedges its way into the pile of Wright lit but doesn't find its way to the top. While the title suggests it will be an in-depth look at the structure and philosophies of Wright's intentional communities at Taliesin, the thesis is "that Frank Lloyd Wright's communities, particularly the Taliesin fellowship, had profound effects on his life and career." That seems beside the point. The book compiles memories and written data about the fellowship, but doesn't illuminate the life of the community.
Too often, Marty spends pages detailing the fact that the apprentices were "essential to Wright's practice," and long sections on the building of Fallingwater and S.C. Johnson Wax headquarters, for instance. The most interesting parts of the book do delve in to the day-to-day at the Taliesin fellowship. That doesn't make the book a fascinating read overall, but there is fascinating material here.
The community of fellows at Taliesin in Spring Green grew in part out of Wright's ideas about education and in part out of necessity. It was 1932, and the Great Depression had dried up what was left of Wright's commissions. The school at Taliesin was a way of generating income and gaining help. The apprentices worked on the farm and on buildings. That first year, 23 men and women paid $650 to be a part of it.
Wright's cousin, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, observed that "slave labor had been outlawed in the Unites States since 1863, and here was slave labor with refinements undreamed of by Simon Legree. Not only were the young laborers paid nothing for growing food crops and restoring buildings in advanced states of decay, but they were charged for the privilege."
This tension between Wright's best intentions and his real-life problems drives the best of the literature about the architect. Here, though, the facts are interesting, but Marty doesn't take advantage of the tension. It's fun to learn that Spring Green and Madison businesspeople were so mad at Wright's failure to pay them for their work that several of them came to blows with him; in one incident in Madison, Wright was kicked in the bridge of his nose. Later, five of the apprentices tried to exact revenge on the attacker and ended up in jail. It's a great story, but it doesn't speak well for the community at Taliesin, and Marty doesn't integrate stories like these into a cohesive evaluation of Wright's communities.
The most interesting, and occasionally deeply weird, chapter is one late in the book, "Daily Life in the Fellowship in the 1940s and 1950s." The apprentices were charged with building their own desert shelters for themselves and their families, including a three tent compound by Shreve Babcock. In the kitchen, all menus had to be approved by Mrs. Wright. Fresh food was sent from Spring Green to Arizona.
Mrs. Wright, apparently, was involved as a matchmaker for the apprentices. Apprentice Kamal Amin recalls that "She needed to be in control of all situations and all people....she endeavored to be a third party to every relationship." She also, apparently, set up marriages among the apprentices, even between gay men and straight women, a fact that Marty comments on only by writing that "the marriages of such couples were ordinarily short-lived, but they were not necessarily unhappy." Huh? Now, this is an aspect of an intentional community that I'm guessing pretty much anyone would like to know more about.
Marty includes more observations on "homosexual activity" and heterosexual affairs among the population at Taliesin, but it's not well interpreted, and what interpretation there is could be seen as offensive -- such as when Marty suggests that since there were artsy types in an experimental community, homosexual liaisons might be expected. Considering Wright's own womanizing, a serious look at how sexuality fit in to the Taliesin community would be highly worthwhile. Nonetheless, the memories of the apprentices on this score deserve to be recorded.
The book's record of the life of the fellowship under Mrs. Wright after Wright's death also presents important material. So while Marty's interviews with apprentices and the culling of source info from some thirteen memoirs and autobiographies from those who experienced life at Taliesin is appreciated, the book spends too much time on ground that seems familiar.