Wright Founds the Taliesin Fellowship

The great architect Frank Lloyd Wright invited apprentices to work with him during the third and most productive period of his career.

Summary of Event

In 1932, at the age of sixty-five, architect Frank Lloyd Wright had fallen on hard times. Taliesin, his home in Spring Green, Wisconsin, had been struck by lightning and burned. Having fallen in love with another woman during a messy divorce, he was hounded by police and forced to spend a night in jail before he could remarry. The Great Depression was making the money needed to create big buildings scarce. In nearly five years, Wright had created buildings for only two paying clients, one a cousin. With his new bride, he returned to Taliesin with plans to rebuild it and to write his autobiography. [kw]Wright Founds the Taliesin Fellowship (Oct., 1932)
[kw]Taliesin Fellowship, Wright Founds the (Oct., 1932)
[kw]Fellowship, Wright Founds the Taliesin (Oct., 1932)
Architecture;Taliesin Fellowship
Taliesin Fellowship
[g]United States;Oct., 1932: Wright Founds the Taliesin Fellowship[08140]
[c]Architecture;Oct., 1932: Wright Founds the Taliesin Fellowship[08140]
Wright, Frank Lloyd
Peters, William Wesley
Kaufmann, Edgar, Jr.
Tafel, Edgar

Genius struck again, however—Wright decided to found the Taliesin Fellowship. He invited apprentices from around the world to live and work with him at Taliesin, where they could learn architecture from the ground up. It was a self-sufficient community: The Taliesin fellows generated electricity, grew their own food, cut their own lumber, quarried stone, and built buildings to live and study in. Having learned design and construction, the fellows helped to engineer and superintend construction of Wright’s greatest buildings. Twenty-three fellows gathered at Taliesin in October, 1932. A few soon left, daunted by the work; others stayed a decade or more. The fellowship flourished, and the numbers of fellows doubled and tripled.

To escape the brutal winter of 1937, Wright led the fellows by caravan to Arizona, where they built winter quarters in Scottsdale at what became Taliesin West. A frontier camp at first, the new location had a drafting room that was lit by sunlight through a canvas roof. Based on Wright’s principles of organic architecture, the headquarters was designed to blend with the desert landscape and was made mostly of materials that were readily at hand.

Wright remained young at heart, especially in old age, and he formed a natural bond with his young apprentices. He believed buildings should not be designed by politicians with grudges or old people with prejudices to preserve, but by fresh young minds. His own creative vigor was spurred by that of his fellows. The Taliesin Fellowship thrust Wright’s career into a second golden age.

Among the first to join Wright at Taliesin was Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., who persuaded his father to commission a vacation home in the wild woods of western Pennsylvania. Wright visited the spot, and the result was Fallingwater, Fallingwater perhaps the most famous private home ever built for a person not of royal blood. Senior Taliesin fellows superintended the construction of Fallingwater. A boulder by a stream, which had been the family’s favorite picnic spot, shoulders through the floor beside the hearth. Anchored to that rock, the house sweeps out horizontally over a waterfall on cantilevered, reinforced concrete balconies. Light and sound from the rippling waters reverberate on slabs of stone, glass, and concrete. Indoors and outdoors blend. United with nature organically, interior space seems unenclosed, reaching out from within.

In the same year, Herbert Johnson Johnson, Herbert asked Wright and his fellows to make a new headquarters for his wax company. They presented him with one of the most astonishingly original, aesthetically pleasing commercial building ever erected. One newspaper reviewer said it was “like a beautiful naked woman bathing in a forest pool,” a rare compliment for an office building. Fashioned on low horizontal curves without corners, the building is entered from behind and beneath, through a carport. Its windowless walls afford no view of drab downtown Racine, Wisconsin, yet there is no feeling of containment, for bands of glass tubing encircle the building, shedding natural daylight on a great communal workspace without cubicles or partitions. As the tubes of glass disperse consciousness of walls, so the ceiling is effaced by giant columns shaped like lily pads; the columns are twenty-four feet in diameter at the top, slimming down to a width of nine inches at the floor. Building code inspectors balked at this design, as each column had to support seven tons. Wright staged a public demonstration in which sixty tons was loaded on one column; the permit was issued, and the spectacle drew nationwide attention. Johnson declared the building was worth more than five times its cost in publicity alone; he gave the fellowship a twenty-thousand-dollar tip and renewed that donation every year.

One of the fellowship’s first projects had been a scale model of Broadacre City, Wright’s visionary plan for a community with a tillable acre of land for each family. The model had featured low-cost “Usonian” (American) homes incorporating Wright’s functional concepts. Madison newspaperman Herbert Jacobs commissioned the first truly Usonian home actually built. Without plaster, radiators, attic, or cellar, the famous five-thousand-dollar house was built of concrete blocks and glass on a concrete slab heated by hot-water pipes. Jacobs also commissioned another home that made history, a rounded structure with a berm in back and glass in front for exposure to the sun. Called the solar hemicycle, Solar hemicycle it was the prototype for passive solar design.

One of the last great projects undertaken by Wright and his fellows proved their most controversial: the Guggenheim Museum Guggenheim Museum;architecture in New York City, an art gallery for nonfigurative art. Wright designed a circular structure that looked more like a concrete eggshell than a regular building. Inside, he coiled a walkway three-fourths of a mile long down from a glass skylight dome on a 3 percent grade. Visitors take an elevator up to the top and then stroll past paintings hung on luminous walls. A turn toward the center presents a prospect of the whole collection. One floor flows into another imperceptibly. Nowhere does the eye meet with any abrupt change of form; all lines flow together in unified harmony. The whole effect is quite serene. Unfortunately, Wright died just months before the museum was opened.


The Taliesin Fellowship had impacts on Wright’s own career, on the careers of the fellows, and on modern architecture in the United States and around the world. Taliesin is a Welsh word that means “the shining brow.” Wright took it as the name for his sparkling house of rock and glass built on the brow of a hill in rural Wisconsin. Taliesin was also the name of a mythical Welsh bard who entertained King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. For Wright, the name thus suggested artistic inspiration, and he used it to christen the fellowship that lifted him late in life with abundant inspiration. With his fellows around the drafting board, he could play King Arthur with his court. They built a new Camelot for themselves and enlivened architecture around the world.

The commission that relaunched the great architect’s career came from the father of a Taliesin fellow. The worldwide acclaim that Fallingwater garnered was unprecedented and led to dozens of other residential commissions, the bread and butter of an architect whose scandalous private life had turned away many corporate and governmental customers.

The Taliesin Fellowship itself drew a significant amount of publicity. Its work-camp ethic appealed to American values during Depression years. Much was made of receiving visitors at Taliesin. For fifty cents, a visitor could receive tours of the house and grounds conducted by fellows, attend a performance of the Taliesin orchestra or chorus, and be greeted by Wright himself. The fellowship gained many clients and allies in this way, among them Herbert Johnson, Carl Sandburg, Adlai Stevenson, Henry R. and Clare Boothe Luce, and other influential shapers of public opinion.

The most immediate and long-range effect the Taliesin Fellowship had on architecture was to spread the fame and influence of Frank Lloyd Wright around the world. The successes of Fallingwater and the Johnson Wax headquarters early in the life of the fellowship reestablished Wright’s professional reputation. In 1938, a special edition of the influential journal Architectural Forum was devoted to Wright’s recent work, and his portrait appeared on the cover of Time magazine. In 1939, Wright was asked to lecture at the Royal Institute of British Architects. Taliesin fellows put together a major retrospective exhibition shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940. In the 1950’s, Philadelphia architect Oscar Stonorov organized an exhibition of Wright’s work titled Sixty Years of Living Architecture and presented it in several cities in the United States, Europe, and Mexico. Wright was the first American architect to gain worldwide fame and influence, and fascination with his work has hardly abated since his founding of the fellowship.

Individually and as an organization, many of the fellows carried on after Wright’s death. The fellowship was transformed into Taliesin Associated Architects, Taliesin Associated Architects a firm that extended Wright’s organic principles of design across the United States. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and School of Architecture were also established to promulgate Wright’s philosophy and provide professional education in architecture.

Taliesin Associates completed several important projects unfinished at the time of Wright’s death: the buildings at Florida Southern College, the Marin County Civic Center complex, and the Grady Grammage Memorial Auditorium at Arizona State University. Some of Wright’s designs were executed as late as the 1970’s, such as the Pfeiffer House at Taliesin West, the Feldman House in Berkeley, California, and the Loveness Guest House in Stillwater, Minnesota.

Many fellows went on to achieve prominence in their own right in architecture and related fields, among them Edmund Thomas Casey, Bruce Gobb, Aaron Green, John deKoren Hill, John H. Howe, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., Eugene Masselink, Charles Mantooth, Robert Mosher, William Wesley Peters, Ling Po, John Rattenbury, Paolo Soleri, and Edgar Tafel. Moreover, Taliesin Associated Architects was responsible for several significant structures erected in the decade after Wright’s death, such as the Ascension Lutheran Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, designed by Peters; the Prairie School in Racine, designed by Mantooth; the Rocky Mountain National Park Center; the Lincoln Income Life Insurance Company in Louisville, Kentucky; the Spring Green resort development near Taliesin; and the Lescohier House in Madison, designed by Peters.

Wright regretted that his effects on architecture had been more imitative than emulative, but they were both. The course of modern architecture was charted by the possibilities of concrete, steel, and glass that he and his Taliesin fellows pioneered. Indeed, his concepts of the prairie house, the Usonian house, and passive solar design revolutionized residential architecture, especially in American suburbs. Suburbs;architecture City planners, of course, never realized the concepts Wright envisioned for Broadacre City in full, but they did try to bring more of the country into the city. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, many downtowns were redesigned as pedestrian malls and gardens to minimize or eliminate the presence of private automobiles. Suburban shopping malls, with their wide-open spacing and horizontal sweep, reflect the massive indirect influence of Wright’s Taliesin period.

If Wright had retired at sixty-five instead of founding the Taliesin Fellowship, he would be remembered as a daring experimentalist in residential architecture and interior design. The impact of his creative innovations and organic philosophy on subsequent architecture would have been marginal, however, as it was before 1932, and his impact on modern building would have been a fraction of what it became. Architecture;Taliesin Fellowship
Taliesin Fellowship

Further Reading

  • Costantino, Maria. Frank Lloyd Wright. New York: Crescent Books, 1991. Lavishly illustrated picture book of Wright’s architecture, with brief commentary, covering all periods of his work in chronological order. Features numerous full-color photographs and black-and-white illustrations. Includes biographical introduction and index.
  • Levine, Neil. The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. Examines Wright’s life as well as his architectural career, addressing the ways in which each influenced the other. Includes many illustrations, bibliographical note, and index.
  • Smith, Norris Kelly. Frank Lloyd Wright: A Study in Architectural Content. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. An intriguing portrait of the architect; not a biography, but an analysis of his political, religious, social aesthetic, and philosophical beliefs. Asserts that Wright was a romantic spirit committed to the universal salvation of humankind, a fundamentally conservative and religious cause. Includes illustrations and footnotes.
  • Storrer, William Allin. The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Complete Catalog. 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Provides photographs or sketches of all buildings known to have been designed by Wright, with brief, cogent commentary. Includes an introduction, floor plans for several structures, maps, and geographic and alphabetical indexes.
  • Tafel, Edgar. Apprentice to Genius: Years with Frank Lloyd Wright. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979. Full and reliable account of the Taliesin Fellowship by one of Wright’s greatest protégés. Lavishly illustrated with dozens of photographs, maps, and designs, many in color, including photographs of apprentices at work and buildings under construction. Includes list of Wright buildings that are open to the public and index.
  • Twombly, Robert C. Frank Lloyd Wright: An Interpretive Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. Excellent interpretation of Wright’s life, work, and thought for the general reader. Offers cogent commentary on the major designs and an appreciative yet balanced assessment of Wright’s political and social ideas and their impact on his work. Marred somewhat by vituperative attacks on Wright’s followers. Includes illustrations, notes, annotated bibliography, and index.
  • Wright, Frank Lloyd. An Autobiography. Rev. ed. New York: Horizon Press, 1977. Wright’s own revelations of his amazing experiences and the overwhelming adversity he overcame remain lively, fresh, and intriguing. This edition incorporates corrections of earlier editions and eighty-two photographs of people and works built as late as 1976.
  • Wright, Olgivanna. Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life, His Work, His Words. New York: Horizon Press, 1966. Laudatory first-person account of the architect by his beloved third wife. Interesting as an insider’s view of life at Taliesin and as a sampler of Wright’s lectures to his Taliesin fellows. Includes many black-and-white photographs, a chronological list of Wright’s architectural innovations, a catalog of his buildings and unfinished projects, and several sketches of later designs by Taliesin fellows.

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