November 3, 2006

Guggenheim Architect Speaks

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It was not only his clever comments, quick wit and personal insight that provided approximately 150 lecture attendees with a clear picture of the life of Edgar Tafel, the former first assistant of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of America’s most prominent architects. It was a slide presentation, which featured an amalgam of black-and-white personal photographs as well as original architectural sketches and floor plans, that gave the audience a first-hand look at some of the most esteemed buildings in the United States, including Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum, The Johnson Wax Building in Wisconsin, and the avant-garde Fallingwater residence in Pennsylvania.

“There is always a lot to learn from history,” said Sarosh Anklesaria, a second-year student earning his masters in architecture, “Having contact with a miraculous architect of the past is the best learning experience one can have.”

As Tafel started his presentation with a baby picture that was, in fact, the first picture ever taken of him as a child, he began his one and a half hour presentation which would summarize not only his professional career, but also his personal life. Born in 1912 and raised in New York City, Tafel explained that he “always wanted to be an architect,” and even his matriculation in a Manhattan private school “didn’t stop [him] from pursuing this goal.”

After cordially introducing the audience to his father, mother and youth soccer team, Tafel noted that it was not until he visited his local chapter of the American Institue of Architects after graduating from high school that he began to make professional contacts and begin his architectural career. He then quickly jumped into a discussion of his professional life, projecting on the screen the first telegram that he received from Wright in 1932, which he joked about given that it was sent collect.

Tafel studied for the next nine years under Wright, and much of this time was spent at Wright’s compound called Taliesin in Wisconsin, which was designed by the architect himself. After showing slides of the scenery, the floor plans, the finished product of Wright’s design, and the before, after, and during-construction sequence of images, Tafel described his daily routine at Taliesin which involved a 6 a.m. wakeup and a beautiful view visible from the balcony conveniently attached to his room.

Tafel touched on Wright’s distinct style, called organic architecture, which involves a harmonious consistency between his buildings and their natural environments — one that “proceeds, persists and creates according to the nature of man and his circumstances,” as Wright himself once described. Through the images featured in Tafel’s slideshow, the audience was able to gain knowledge and appreciation of this European, avant-garde structural technique and innovative design. The various pictures of the Fallingwater residence, which was built in 1935 for Edgar J. Kaufman in southwestern Pennsylvania, capture this style distinctly, as the house itself is constructed over a natural waterfall.

Next, Tafel put on screen the original sketch that captured his 1936 personal vision of what would soon be the renovated S.C. Johnson & Sons Building. Although he noted that “Frank Lloyd Wright changed everything,” from his own design, Tafel was not lacking in praise for what later would become an architectural watershed — the headquarters of the Johnson Wax Company. Most commonly characterized by its columns, skylights and interior balcony, Tafel showed slides of the building’s many attributes ranging from its physical structure involving a number of interior columns with built-in drains, to its adjoining parking garage, lobby and rubber linoleum floors.

As he began to transition from the rural architecture of Wright into the more urbanized projects that he and Wright assumed in New York City, Tafel explained his important role in the construction of both the Guggenheim Museum and the addition to the First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue. Despite his description of the Guggenheim as being “depressing” because “you are always walking around, and around,” Tafel described the numerous complications that posed hindrances to the museum’s actual construction. Given that its allotted $2 million dollar budget did not come close to covering the $6 million dollar cost necessary to actually build it, Tafel used his connections and negotiating skills to find a builder willing to construct the museum given the monetary constraints. Accordingly, his business savvy proved to be pivotal in the creation of one of New York’s finest architectural and cultural landmarks.

Tafel ended with a series of slides depicting his own work on the SUNY Geneseo Campus in 1964, specifically his design of Brodie Hall, a fine arts building, which he described as being “the most exciting work [he] has ever done.” His projects at Geneseo also included the design of what is known on campus as “South Village,” a complex with five residence halls and a dining hall.

Although his work includes a number of architectural projects, Tafel’s resume is not limited to design. He has written two books about his experience as an apprentice for Frank Lloyd Wright, entitled Years with Frank Lloyd Wright (1985) and About Wright (1993). He has also produced an award-winning film called The Frank Lloyd Wright Way.

Students were unsure of what to expect from Tafel given his seniority and impressive amount of experience. “[Tafel] was cute and entertaining,” said Sarah Holland ’08, “But I was expecting him to focus more on his work and less on his personal life.”