IN 1932, Edgar Tafel arrived in Spring Green, Wis. His 19-year-old curly head was stuffed with the glory of Frank Lloyd Wright's writings on architecture. He'd come to be one of Wright's first apprentices, confident that this was the great master who would set him on the right road.
Tafel first saw Wright standing on a stage in a school gym -- a commanding man, a figure of authority.
"Young man," Wright said, "help move this piano."
Tafel moved many pianos in his nine years with Wright, first as an apprentice, then as a colleague. He moved other things as well: lumber, dirt, walls, automobiles, ditches. Wright moved the mountains himself.
Now Tafel -- an established New York architect -- has written a charming memoir, "Apprentice to Genius" (McGraw-Hill Book Co.). He was in Washington the other day to talk about his book over cold salmon at the Madison Hotel buffet.
Though Wright has been dead since 1959 and Tafel himself has a long career behind him, Tafel still speaks of his late master as "Mr. Wright." After all these years, his attitude is still respectful. You won't hear any juicy stories about Wright -- though obviously there must have been many -- from Tafel. But he does talk about the great man with wit, understanding and appreciation. When he starts to talk about Wright, he interrupts one story to tell another.
Wright was not a tall man. He claimed he was 5 foot 8. Others said he was shorter. But like a magic lantern projecting an image larger than life, Wright was able to project himself as a super being. He was supremely confident of his own greatness. Tafel tells about the time Wright was heard softly singing to himself: "I'm a genius, I'm a genius."
Wright was the major American architect of his times. He lived 91 busy, fulfilled years. As an architect he grew, changed and matured. He began before the turn of the century in the Art Nouveau style (or, more precisely, in an Americanized version of the Viennese Secession). His last work was futuristic -- even today it could serve as sets for "Son of Star Trek." In between were his prairie houses, which established the claim of the United States to an indigenous architecture. He often told his apprentices: "What we did yesterday, we won't do today. And what we don't do tomorrow will not be what we'll be doing the day after."
Even when Tafel was a young man he had the sense of being in on something important, sitting at the feet of the form-giver. He saved the telegram Wright sent him, accepting him as one of the first class of the Taliesen Fellowship -- and, not so incidentally, reducing the tuition by $225 so Tafel could afford to come. During the Depression, Wright never sent his apprentices away, even when the banks failed and their families couldn't pay their tuition or upkeep. He paid expenses by lecturing and writing when no one could afford architectural commissions.
Tafel saved all his letters from Wright. "Most of them were instructions." And he made a great many photographs of Wright and Taliesen, the school/home/headquarters that Wright built and called by the Welsh word meaning "shining brow." (The book has hundreds of black and white photographs and 32 pages of color.)
Tafel said that everyone who knew Wright remembers vividly the first time they saw him:
"He wore a pair of tweed trousers fastened tightly at the ankle with matching cloth ties. The style seemed peculiar, but it was for protection against the weather, so the cold couldn't get up his trouser legs and so that the pants wouldn't flap around. In public, he generally wore a trim porkpie hat, which he sometimes abandoned for a soft beret.
"A tailor in Chicago, Stevenson on Michigan Avenue, made up the clothing Wright designed for himself. He never dressed outlandishly, but he certainly had a definite style. There were his capes, which made him appear seven feet tall when he swirled them over his shoulders; and he always wore stiff, high-starched detachable shirt collars. When he was in Japan, working on the Imperial Hotel, he ordered some new collars from a local haberdasher.He explained how he wanted them made, and a sample was sent for his approval. He scribbled in red: 'OK, FLLW.' When the collars were delivered, every one was monogrammed 'OK, FLLW' in red ink."
Tafel goes on to suggest that perhaps Wright's magnificent entrances were enhanced by shoes with elevated heels. His cane "was a mace, used for effect." His voice and elocution were likewise dramatic. "The simplest statement . . . became a graven, immutable truth for all ages, even if it was just about the weather."
Wright's wife, Olgivana, was a fit consort. One of the apprentices told Tafel that she patterned life at Taliesen after the Russian imperial court, which she had admired from her native Montenegro.
The apprentices, Tafel writes, served Wright as he served his architecture mentor, Louis Sullivan: "a pencil in the hand of the master."
But first they had to build their own place to stay. Tafel's second job at Taliesen after moving the piano was to whitewash two bathrooms. The second day, Tafel helped a carpenter install walls and learned how to plaster with Wright's favorite "sand-float" finish. The color was mixed into the final coat because Wright hated paint. In the drafting rooms, the apprentices drew sketches of their rooms and renderings of Wright's Imperial Hotel.
They learned other things, of course. Wright drew pictures for them showing how he destroyed the "bedeviled box" that was the conventional home of the period. He'd point out that:
" . . . The most economic support of a building is not at the corners but at a certain distance in . . . This short space from the supporting wall out to the unsupported corner is cantilever . . .
"Walls? They no longer serve as barriers, keeping the inside of the box in and the outside world out. They become screens, letting inside out and outside in. We apprentices must have heard this a thousand times. Each time is sounder truer."
Wright railed against attics and cellars and closets. "There's no reason for people to hold on to so much junk!
He made the ceilings low for a more human scale. One person complained his hat was knocked off when he came into a Wright house. Wright told him to take his hat off before he came in. Wesley Peters, a classmate of Tafel's and now the head man at Taliesen, is 6-foot-4, just the height of Taliesen ceilings. Wright used to yell at him, "Sit down Wes! You're destroying the scale."
Wright was never afraid to change his mind. He always told his apprentices that an architect's best tools are "the eraser in the drafting room and the wrecking bar on the job." When he didn't like a wall, he'd grab a bar and smash it. Tafel says once a workman aimed a couple of bricks at Wright.
On the other hand, Wright was convinced that he and his, though beset by devils on every side, could do no wrong. Once Tafel, as usual acting as chauffeur, parked Wright's car on a slope without pulling on the brake. The Zephyr rolled down the hill and banged into another car. Wright with a lordly manner told the other car owner:
"It's not my fault. If you didn't have your car here in the first place, it wouldn't have gotten hit."
The young men and women apprentices didn't always conform to Wright's plans for them. Tafel remembered the time that Wright came back from a trip unexpectedly to find only Tafel minding the store. "He insisted that we get in the car and drive around to all the bars looking for them. He was convinced they were out drinking. We stopped at five bars, without any luck. When we got to the sixth, I told Mr. Wright: 'This is the last.' 'Well,' he said, 'if they aren't here, we'll go in and have a drink ourselves.' They weren't, of course, but I didn't get my drink."
Wright, who in the '30s always owed money, could be close with a nickle, to put it mildly. Tafel remembers the time he asked a radio manufacturer for a discount on a radio. The owner said he wouldn't give him a discount because he didn't do business that way, but he would give him a radio. "And Mr. Wright immediately said, 'We have two schools, could we have radios for both?' He was like a labor lawyer, trying to push an advantage."
In the book, Tafel tells about the time Wright bought his wife five hats and asked and received a discount. But not everybody was intimidated by Wright. Another time, he went to a hardware store and asked for a $40 discount on a $120 purchase. The shopkeeper refused and Wright left with a shrug.The shopkeeper said something in Yiddish. Wright asked for a translation, and Tafel obliged: "He can lie in hell."
The apprentices were used to being told to pile in the car and go with Wright on a minute's notice to some building site -- usually several, including many of his old buildings. Once he took them to see the D.D. Martin summer house, in Derby, N.Y., when the owners were away:
"Mr. Wright led us in, surveyed the main floor, and directed us to take off the covers. He began to rearrange the furniture -- beginning, as was his way, with the piano. Next he instructed us to get knives from the kitchen to cut huge bunches of spring flowers and branches outside in the garden. We filled all the living room vases and pots . . . Mr. Wright left a note for the Martins, something like this: Stopped by to visit you. FLLW, your Architect.'"
(Many years later, Tafel oversaw the reconstruction of the first house Wright designed for the Martins in Buffalo.)
Wright, like many other geniuses, seems to have worked best under pressure. In 1935, Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr., a department store president and father of another Wright apprentice, called to ask if he could see the drawings for his new house, to be built 60 miles south of Pittsburgh.
"'Come along, E. J. We're ready for you,' boomed Mr. Wright into the hand-cranked telephone . . . I looked across my drafting table at the apprentice in front of me, Bob Mosher, whose back had stiffened at the words. Ready? There wasn't one line drawn."
Tafel writes that Wright drew Fallingwater -- the Kaufmann house that many people think is his masterpiece -- in 140 minutes. He talked as he drew, about where the kettle would hang in the house, and the best spot for breakfast. The basic plans were ready when Kaufmann arrived. Other elevations, in Wright's style, were sketched up while Wright and Kaufmann were at lunch. Tafel later supervised the construction of the Kaufmann house as well as the S. C. Johnson & Son Administration Building and Wingspread, Johnson's residence in Racine, Wis., among others.
Wright, according to Tafel, also was not above touching up other's work. He loved Japanese prints, which he gave his apprentices for Christmas. Sometimes, according to Tafel, if he thought the print too bright, he'd put it in the sun to fade. If it were too faded, he'd touch it up with colored prints.
(Tafel regrets greatly, as all Wright-thinking people must, the destruction of the Wright-designed Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. He was part of a group that tried to save it. When it didn't work, he brought back examples of all the structural elements -- a brick, a piece of terra-cotta and a chair -- for the State University at Buffalo and the State University College at Geneseo, N.Y., which has a Tafel-designed Fine Arts Building.)
Wright's concern for the organic extended to food. He made the apprentices cook sauerkraut after a recipe by Oglivanna Wright's hero, George Gurdjieff, the philosopher. Wright insisted they take two 50-gallon barrels of it from Taliesen (Wisconsin) to their summer quarters in Taliesen West, Arizona. The sauerkraut froze solid and the tops popped off. The grateful apprentices dumped it in a ditch.
Another time, they all made wine, drank too much, and ended up on the roof. Wright fired them all. Then gave them a lecture on organic architecture and told them to mend their ways and hired them back. Once when Tafel tried to hide his hangover behind sunglasses, Wright marched him to the bathroom and shoved a tablespoonful of caster oil down his mouth.
Tafel said that apprentices were always falling out of trees or off horses. "The Wrights were always most concerned and came to the hospital to see how we were."
Tafel got used to being fired. While he was working on the Johnson Wax Office building in Racine, Wis., he was fired by Johnson because he told Wright that the owner had changed glass tubes for flat glass in a roof section. Wright tole Tafel to say he'd have to fire the architect, too.
Another time, Tafel was fired by Wright because he added steel beams to a skimpy Usonian design. Another apprentice built the same design without the steel beams and the roof caved in. Wright was persuaded to take Tafel back.
On his honeymoon, Tafel found himself called upon to look in on several Wright houses with problems. After that, he got several commissions on his own. But there was a dispute over the fees, and Tafel, with six others, left the Foundation.
Even so, years later, when Wright was building the Guggenheim Museum, he called Tafel for the name of his concrete man -- George N. Cohen, who became the builder of the Guggenheim. He also sent Tafel to get his blueprints run off.
Tafel himself has been responsible for saving some of Wright's works. He helped arrange for the music room of the Francis Little house to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Little study to go to the Allentown Museum in Pennsylvania.
Tafel designed the Allentown extension. Tafel also is known for his First Presbyterian Church House in New York City, as well as many additions and new buildings across the country.
Tafel is often asked if he always felt as if Wright were leaning over his shoulder in the drafting room. "Not really," he said. "Of course I was influenced by him, but I've always felt free to work in my own style." Tafel has been noted for the sensitivity with which he has designed adjacent structures in a way that doesn't offend older historical buildings. More recently, he confesses to designing a Tudor-influenced house for a Long Island site. "I don't know honestly how many other former Wright apprentices would feel free to do that."
For years Tafel, though he kept up with Taliesen and the friends who stayed behind, was busy with his own life and work. But a few years ago, Tafel's wife died. ("She didn't like me to be identified as a Wright apprentice, she wanted me to be recognized on my own.") He was putting his life in order when he came upon his Wright slides. Before long, he was traveling around the world, sponsored by USIA, to talk about Wright. From there, the book began.
"It's been a good thing for me," said Tafel. "Otherwise, I'd be retired and in a condominium somewhere, playing golf and being bored."
Today, international architecture with its lost-in-the-stars attitude toward time, place and people is under questioning.As a result, there is a renewed interest in Wright's work, the antithesis of the International Style. Wright's work was, he liked to say, organic, pushing its way up from the site, growing and changing with the times, scaled to the human size. Rather low-ceilinged, perhaps, but then Wright measured things to himself.