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Monday, August 28, 2006

Book Review: The Fellowship

The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & The Taliesin Fellowship by Robert Friedland and Harold Zellman

Although the authors, in their exhaustive, ten-years-in-the-making account of Taliesin, take Wright's Fellowship as its subject, their overarching goal seems to be to deflate the myths of who many consider the greatest architect of the 20th century, if not all time. The myths are many, stemming from Wright's arrogance, his many public relationships, his reckless spending, his words, and his architecture. One of the most often-told stories is about Fallingwater, where Wright supposedly created the basic design in less than two hours, in the time from the client's phone call to his arrival at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. While the authors don't flat-out refute the story, they quibble over details and eventually conclude that Wright carried the design around in his head long before he put it to paper, deflating the myth that he could design a house in two hours.

While this episode is but a small part of The Fellowship, it is a good example of what the authors try to accomplish: humanizing the architect who has become larger than the life through other writings, films, and stories carried down over time. This goal is not a bad thing, but to accomplish this the authors spend a lot of time dwelling on the architect's less-than-decent traits: his temper, his racism and sexism, his exploitation of students through his Fellowship program. But just as taking an extreme position to sway somebody in politics can backfire, here their storytelling runs the same risk.

The book starts with a brief background of Wright's early years and then spends a good chunk focusing on his soon-to-be third wife Olgivanna's time in Europe studying under the mystic Georgi Gurdjieff. In another myth-breaking exercise, the authors ascribe much of the Fellowship's basis to these two characters, though Wright's love of the former was equaled by his loathing of the latter, in an apparent clash of geniuses. Ending the book after Wright's death, when Olgivanna pushed the Fellowship in her own direction, the authors are never really able to reconcile the relationship of the various characters and their undertaking at Taliesin. But perhaps that's the point, that Wright's genius was manifest in a haphazard, of the moment way, where things like the Fellowship happened in response to an immediate concern but evolved over time. This take on his personality is backed up by his frivolous spending, his relationships, and his method of designing buildings like Fallingwater. Sure, this isn't the final word on Frank Lloyd Wright, but perhaps it's one step toward understanding him as a man rather than a mythological figure.

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