F.L. Wright vs. G.I. Gurdjieff

A New Book Uncovers the Strange Story of the Taliesin Fellowship

Roger Friedland, a cultural sociologist, and Howard Zellman, an architect, have written a very good book about a strange and little-known subject, the Taliesin Fellowship of Frank Lloyd Wright (The Fellowship, HarperCollins, NY, 2006). Wright, himself, is certainly well known, through his buildings, his writings on architecture, his autobiogra­phy, a number of other biographies, and a popular novel, The Fountainhead, which became a successful motion pic­ture. Oddly enough, however, until Friedland and Zellman published The Fellowship, little was known of the school that Wright set up in the depths of the great depression, ostensibly to train the cream of American youth to be “or­ganic” architects.

In the depression year of 1932 Frank Lloyd Wright was broke. The notoriety that had followed when he left his first wife and children for an open liaison with Mamah Cheney, her murder, his disastrous second marriage to Miriam Noel, and finally the affair with Olgivanna Hinzenberg, had wrecked his career. And as if all the adverse publicity were not enough, building had come to an abrupt stop all over America as the world sank into the great economic depres­sion of the 1930s. In 1932 there was no architectural work to be had anywhere by anyone, and to Wright, with his ex­travagant ways and his problem of not enough money—never enough money—the depression was an unmitigated disaster.

But Wright had an answer, an answer perhaps born of desperation and unlikely coincidence, but a brilliant solu­tion for all of that. Wright had toyed for several years with the idea of opening an architectural school at Taliesin, his estate in Wisconsin. After all, his spinster aunts had made a living from the old Hillside Home School on the Taliesin property. As it turned out, however, his school, the “Fellowship,” would not be an ordinary school, not even an archi­tectural apprenticeship under his direction, as Wright had at first thought. It was to be indirectly but inextricably linked to the ideas of that other extraordinary man, G. I. Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff seems to have been an incomprehensible mixture of self-appointed messiah, visionary genius and mysti­cal seer. Acquainted from an early age with the magical beliefs and powers of the peasants among whom he was raised, he was absorbed in all aspects of the occult. There is little doubt that he possessed remarkable magical powers, which were carefully cultivated throughout his life. He was, in fact, a magus, or magician in the old sense of the word, and he had a messianic message, simple in essence. We are all asleep, he taught, lost in the mechanical repeti­tion of response patterns of behavior. Freedom is to be found in awakening, in becoming aware of who we are, and what we are. This may be achieved through “the Work,” a system of constant mental and physical challenges whereby a student may be shaken into a state of higher awareness. An essential part of the Work was the performance of sa­cred dances that were designed to align the dancer with the mathematical laws of the cosmos. One of the students and dancers that had followed him on his long journey from Tiflis to Paris was Olgivanna Hinzenberg, who eventually became the third wife of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Friedman and Zellman have demonstrated that unknown to Wright his involvement with Olgivanna was ‘set up’ in New York by key members of Gurdjieff’s “Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man,” then located in “le Prieure” a run-down former seminary near Paris. Wright had recently announced, in a spurious attempt to appease his creditors, that he intended to leave Taliesin and make his home in Chicago. Taliesin would presumably be vacant, and Gurdjieff was looking for just such an estate in America to which he could move the Institute. It is not likely that Olgivanna would have been thrown in Frank’s way without the concurrence of the ‘master.’ Moreover, she, herself, felt she had been commissioned by Gurdjieff to obtain a suitable property in the United States. In any event, the meeting arranged between Wright and Olgivanna was entirely successful. Wright was infatuated with this slender, beautiful dancer, over thirty years his junior, and reveled in his conquest. He soon brought her to Taliesin and em­barked upon yet another out-of-wedlock affair.

The Gurdjieff group in New York must have been pleased. Two days after Olgivanna moved in with Wright, accord­ing to Friedland and Zellman, they were holding multiple meetings to discuss the situation. Wright, they understood, was not hostile to the idea of some sort of Gurdjieffian use of Taliesin. Friedland and Zellman point out that Wright and Gurdjieff had much in common, and there were “uncanny correspondences in their thinking.” Both, for instance, used the term “organic:” Gurdjieff to refer to a harmony with cosmic forces and Wright to his architecture. Both were also inspired by forms found in nature, and both were devoted to the beauty of Gothic art. Moreover, Wright was already aware of Gurdjieff and his ideas through Zona Gale, a Gurdjieff follower whom he had unsuccessfully courted. The group had every reason to be optimistic.

But the whole effort went for naught when Taliesin once again caught fire and burned to the ground. The estate was useless to Gurdjieff and in any case, for the next few years, Wright was absorbed in rebuilding, in the further scandal of Olgivanna’s pregnancy and the birth of his illegitimate child, in his divorce from the unstable Miriam Noel and finally in his marriage to Olgivanna. At the same time he was struggling to keep his architectural practice alive, and retain his ownership of Taliesin as the banks threatened to foreclose on the mortgages. Then, as it seemed he might finally become free of his debts, building stopped all across the country as a result of the economic depression and Wright completely lost his architectural income.

Wright was desperate for money—a lot of money—to pay his debts, hold on to Taliesin and continue to enjoy his lavish life-style. The brilliant stroke he achieved was to capitalize on the beauty of his estate, and his fame and reputa­tion as an architect, by offering “apprenticeships” to those who would pay, and pay handsomely, for the privilege of living at Taliesin and working under his direction. The students came and paid, and the scheme proved highly profita­ble. The school, however, now called the Fellowship, was not what many of them had been led to expect. For one thing, an apprenticeship implies the presence of a master with whom one works and learns, but Wright, at that time, had no work. Olgivanna, however, was eager to incorporate the ideas of Gurdjieff into the structure of the school. What resulted was a curious amalgam whereby the total re-education of the students along lines established at the Priory somehow became the primary goal.

There were, inevitably, complaints from those who had supposed that they would learn to become architects in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright, and found that they would instead learn to cook, hoe corn, labor on the construc­tion of the buildings in which they were to be housed, wait on the table, and act as personal servants to the Wrights. Many left, but they were quickly replaced by others who found the Taliesin communal life deeply rewarding. Those who stayed did the work assigned to them and made the Fellowship function. They listened to lectures by Mr. and Mrs. Wright, as they were formally called, studied and performed the Gurdjieff dance “movements” taught by Olgi­vanna, and participated in the outings, theatrics and music that were an important part of life at Taliesin. Later, as the country began to emerge from the depression and architectural commissions began to come in, more time was allotted to architecture, but the emphasis always remained upon the spiritual transformation of the individual ap­prentice.

The great strength of the book lies in the way Friedland and Zellman build up a picture of life as it was lived in the ivory tower that the Fellowship became for both the Wrights and the apprentices. Through the stories of the appren­tices as they reacted to Taliesin and interacted with the Wrights and through a careful description of the succession of events, both within the Fellowship, and in the outside world, that shaped and influenced life within the walls, we begin to sense what a strange place the Fellowship must have been. Most of the apprentices were young men—“my boys” Mr. Wright called them and it seems that the women applicants were largely ‘put down’ and discouraged. The result was a pervasive male homosexuality that could have been damaging if publicly revealed. Gay men, however, with artistic abilities and devoted to Wright, were essential to the Fellowship. The Wrights privately encouraged them while denouncing homosexuality in general. Wright was similarly an outspoken anti-Semite who depended upon Jew­ish clients and Jewish apprentices. These deny, despite his rhetoric, that they ever experienced discrimination at Ta­liesin. His politics, however, which were absorbed by the apprentices, were naïve, to say the least. He admired Germa­ny and Japan, became friends with Lindbergh and with Phillip Johnson, a founder of the Museum of Modern Art, who had tried in the 30s to start an American Nazi party. Even after the attack on Pearl Harbor he had urged “my boys” to resist the draft. Most of them did, for loyalty to “Mr. Wright” and an unquestioning acceptance of whatever he said or was even believed to think became an absolute requirement for those who wished to remain at Taliesin.

And yet Wright certainly had feet of clay, clearly visible to those who were willing to look. The apprentices must have been aware of his obsessive jealousy, overweening conceit, the night-time quarrels with Olgivanna, and the oc­casional day-time scenes as well. They must have known of his arrogance and cruelty, his gross selfishness, his failure to pay his legitimate debts and the rage with which he greeted attempts to collect them. They nevertheless put their trust in this supreme egotist, accepted their own exploitation, and remained fanatically loyal. As an F.B.I. agent re­ported to J. Edgar Hoover, Wright “was regarded by members of the Fellowship as somewhat of an idol, a tin god, or a master who could do no wrong.” Friedland and Zellman are carefully noncommittal regarding their opinion of this unusual micro-society. Only in their prologue do they use the word “bizarre” and conclude that Frank and Olgivanna “brought a passion, indeed a madness, to the place.”

And mad it may well have been. In the early nineteen-fifties, when I was an architectural student at the University of Pennsylvania, I made a short visit to Taliesin and had a direct experience of the Fellowship as it was in its heyday. I can, therefore, confirm the accuracy of the description given in the book. If anything, the atmosphere of the place is understated. The slavish adulation of Wright, the aggressive insistence that he be recognized even by a casual visitor as “the world’s greatest architect,” and the abject fear and reverence that he seemed to inspire, at least in David Dodge, the apprentice who took me on a tour and introduced me to “Mr. Wright,” were puzzling and troubling. This odd looking, little man, wearing a cape, and curiously androgyne with his long, white hair, rosy cheeks and bright blue eyes, was certainly not a god, but was, nevertheless, obviously regarded as one. In some way I felt then, and feel now, that the Fellowship, as it came to be under the megalomaniac direction of Frank Lloyd Wright, was an affront to our common humanity.

Despite the “madness” the Fellowship persisted. It always seemed to be on the edge of failure and dissolution but Frank and Olgivanna somehow surmounted the successive crises, and perhaps through sheer force of will managed to keep it going. In its financial and emotional shelter Wright’s career revived, and in his later years he came to be considered the accepted major icon of American architecture. The Fellowship has even persisted after Wright’s death in nineteen-fifty-nine. It persists now, long after the backlog of building designs that he left has been exhausted, and the world has moved on to newer and more fashionable architectural styles.

But what of Georgi Gurdjieff, who through Olgivanna and the example of his own institute may be responsible in some way for what the Fellowship became? The first visit of Gurdjieff to Taliesin took place in nineteen thirty-four.

He had lost the Priory and was desperately searching for money, supporters and an American home. Olgivanna, who despite her marriage to Wright always considered Gurdjieff her “master,” would have led him to think that he would find all of these things at Taliesin. He must have decided to use his considerable psychic powers and remarkable strength of character to seize control at the outset. According to Svetlana, Wright’s stepdaughter, he behaved as if Wright were one of his followers. He ordered him about. He dominated Wright in his own home, and with Olgivan­na’s support, humiliated him in front of the apprentices. But not even Gurdjieff could for long subdue Wright’s enor­mous ego. A violent, screaming quarrel between Wright and Olgivanna in their apartments after the public humilia­tion was audible to the apprentices across the compound. It led to Gurdjieff’s departure, and soon afterwards Wright made it clear that there would be no Gurdjieff center at Taliesin.

Gurdjieff died in October, 1949. He nevertheless continued to be a force in the Fellowship through Olgivanna and her other daughter Iovanna, born to Frank before their marriage. As Frank declined in his last few years Olgivanna moved to take more and more control of the Fellowship. Immediately after her husband’s death she seized control of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, under which the Fellowship was organized. The Foundation, under Olgivanna, continued the architectural practice, but her chief interest was, as always, in forwarding the ideas of her master, G. I. Gurdjieff. The death of her husband gave her the free hand that she always wanted to teach Gurdjieff’s principles as she understood them, and the authority to shape the lives of those within the Fellowship as one who had received the light directly from the master. Friedland and Zellman show us that the result of her meddling in the lives of others was an increase of unhappiness and misery.

Friedland and Zellman seem to believe that the Fellowship, with all its faults and problems, and Wright, with the enormous ego that the Fellowship fed, were justified by the buildings designed and constructed in the last decades of his astonishing career. They cite Fallingwater, the Johnson Wax Administration Building and the Guggenheim Mu­seum as great architectural icons that could not have come into being without the emotional and financial support of the Fellowship and the Gurdjieffian philosophy that came to the architect through Olgivanna. Very likely this is so, but the vital question then becomes, are they really great buildings? Granted they are famous, admired by both the critics and the public, and are enormously influential—but are they great buildings? In my opinion, they are not. They are all three fatally flawed by the very conditions cited by the authors as responsible for their creation. They demonstrate the presence of a remarkable talent, a great courage and a willingness to dare and achieve, but they are all three fatally tainted by the unbridled arrogance of their creator. In pursuit of his goal to be “the world’s greatest architect” Wright was willing, if not eager, to ignore the needs of his clients, to indulge in grandiose fancies, to sacri­fice the integrity of his buildings to one dramatic view or photograph, to design for one or two spectacular effects at the expense of the harmony and cohesion of the whole. These buildings, like the man, are irresponsible. They are showy rather than dramatic. They are fundamentally flawed and yet they reveal, even in their flaws, the tragedy of what might have been.

The day of Wright’s death I was in Philadelphia, and that evening I returned to the university to hear a lecture by Lewis Mumford. Above the entrance to the School of Fine Arts a huge black flag was flapping in the wind. Mumford, who had been one of Wright’s earliest supporters, elected to discard his notes and speak on the life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was, in a sense, a funeral oration, and I think that Mumford saw it as such. I shall never forget it. The theme was tragedy, the tragedy of what might have been. What might have been, had he kept faith with Louis Sulli­van, with his first wife and children, with all those he cheated, betrayed, with those like Mumford, whom he had ex­coriated at a breath of honest critical appraisal, and finally with himself in his refusal to see the contradictions and evasions that were characteristic of his behavior. As Louis Sullivan had written of the Marshall Field Warehouse in Chicago, when we look at a building we see a man. When we look at Wright’s buildings we see a man possessed of an enormous talent and an enormous ambition who was terribly flawed.

And what was the role of the Fellowship, of Olgivanna and Gurdjieff in the working out of this tragedy? I think that they all three aided and abetted the destruction of Wright’s artistic integrity. The unquestioning adulation of the apprentices, the need to secure the love and admiration of his young and beautiful wife, who apparently never wa­vered in her devotion to the other man, and the powerful personality of that other man, whom Wright seems to have at once admired and resented, all reinforced his megalomaniac drive for success in architecture at whatever cost. Without the Fellowship Wright would probably be remembered as a footnote for the value of his early work. With the Fellowship he is a household word, and known for the famous buildings of his later years. But the fame was pur­chased at a terrible cost both to the architect, and to the society that he served.

Herbert Bangs, M.Arch., is a professional architect and author of The Return of Sacred Architecture: The Golden Ratio and the End of Modernism (Inner Traditions, 2006) which includes a foreword by John Anthony West. It can be ordered from Atlantis Rising.


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