Frank Lloyd Wright, Taliesin and Fallingwater

Adam Sutherland

Frank Lloyd Wright (June 8, 1867–April 9, 1959), Site Plan, Fallingwater, Bear Run, Pennsylvania, 1936–1939. Pencil on tracing paper, 380 × 550 mm. DMC 1852.2.

The formative history of Frank Lloyd Wright – leading to Fallingwater – touches upon many of the themes that run through the exhibition ‘The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind’ (Hauser & Wirth Somerset till May 7th). The idea that there is a rural mindset, an alternative mode of thought that offers a more diverse and naturally pluralistic body of influence, is illustrated in Wright’s way of life and work. He adhered to his own notion of ‘organic architecture’, architecture drawn from the land and connected to it.

Wright’s 1901 photograph of C. R. Ashbee (included in the exhibition) articulates these kindred spirits’ shared interest in the Arts and Crafts, in social function and, perhaps more importantly, in the idea of a creative commune. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicrafts was a utopian social project that brought (by bicycle) 150 trained East-London craftsmen to live and work in a rural context – the perfect medieval village of Chipping Camden. The project was initially housed in the Toynbee Settlement in urban Whitechapel, and aimed to create a life school that offered a creative and developmental way to live – an ambition Wright would revisit some twenty-five years later at Taliesin.

Taliesin was Wright’s first family home, and despite the horrific murders there of his wife, children and several staff architects in 1914, he retained the name for the twice burnt-down and rebuilt house. From 1928 it also became his utopian school and office – Taliesin III. The name ‘Taliesin’ is taken from a Welsh sixth-century bard. Semi-mythical, he has been elaborated upon over many centuries to become a deeply romantic figure credited as the bard of the court of King Arthur. Wright’s mother was Welsh and he was interested in Welsh heritage and identity – a typically Arts-and-Crafts obsession of the kind lampooned by Mark Twain in his satire A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. Wright preferred in many ways to embrace the old world, as opposed to the contemporary, and organic architecture is grounded in the Arts and Crafts period.

Japanese ideas about aesthetics and our relationship to nature were hugely influential to the later Arts and Crafts period, and to Wright. Immediately after the six murders at Taliesin Wright visited Japan, having long been a collector and dealer in Japanese prints. The influence of the Japanese print, and of Hiroshige in particular (Wright organised the first showing of Hiroshige’s work outside of Japan), brought a new way to look at landscape and the use of the land, depicting working people and their buildings, bridges and architecture emerging out of it.

In 1928 Wright married Olga Ivanovna Lazović, who was one of George Gurdjieff’s inner circle and mother of one of the guru’s many children. George Gurdjieff was an Armenian mystic who had a cult following in 1920s Paris. His philosophy was centred on development of the self, which was achieved through a programme of dance moves – an exercise known as ‘The Work’. The Work was part of what he termed ‘The Fourth Way’, a road to personal development. Gurdjieff’s ‘source’ was his discovery of the lost valley of the Sarmoung Brotherhood, a kind of Shangri-La in the mountains of Afghanistan where he claimed to have learnt The Fourth Way. The story is highly likely to be a Gurdjieff invention.

Wright evidently endured a love-hate relationship with Gurdjieff, as is often the case between two very similar people. Nevertheless, when the Frank and Olga moved to Taliesin The Work was instituted as part of the daily routine for the young architects, as well as dance and performance. There was also an adherence to Gurdjieff’s work ethic, especially attending to the land and to growing. This included mandatory hours of work in the compost heaps (Wright had planted thousands of fruit trees around Taliesin). The students did little architecture.

One of the architect apprentices at Taliesin III was Edgar Kaufmann Jr (1933–34). Kaufmann senior, at his son’s encouragement, became one of Wright’s most important clients, commissioning several major works as well as several interiors. The Kaufmanns’ first commission was Fallingwater. Uninspired by yet another private house, Wright delayed working on it until two hours before the client arrived to inspect the plans, creating at the last moment the full plans more or less as they were eventually built, despite the incomparable engineering challenges. Buried in the foundations of Fallingwater are the ignored engineers’ reports. The building has suffered from engineering anxiety ever since.

Fallingwater perhaps best embodies Wright’s ‘organic’ concept, highlighting within its domestic interior elements of the ground on which it was built: this interior includes the favoured rock on which the Kaufmanns used to sit for their picnics before the build existed, thus embodying a favourite Wright precept: ‘Not on the mountain but of the mountain’.

The use of colour in Fallingwater also follows this principle, featuring Wright’s favourite colour, ‘Cherokee Red’, a red iron oxide. The yellow ochre of the walls was another raw oxide, these pigments being in common usage across the world, from Japan to the Wild West, from Buddhist temples to railways, and all derived from commonly occurring natural oxides found on every continent.

Fallingwater heralded Wright’s second golden age and his full embrace of his own famously monstrous behaviour. This troubled, miraculous project was first in the string of his most famous buildings, which culminated with the Guggenheim in 1959. Artefacts and documentation on almost all of the people in this essay are represented in the exhibition ‘The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind.’