PreviousNext

The New Yorker Who Carried Taliesin Back Home

At the Center for Architecture by • 02/05

Among many stories told at this lively celebration of the later work of Edgar Tafel, FAIA – a natural and engaging raconteur, he was also the subject of quite a few tales over the years – his frequent collaborator Robert Silman related one about the decision to study under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin. Young Tafel had been unimpressed with what he heard as a student in NYU’s architecture program (now defunct) during the 1930s: “These professors don’t know what they’re talking about,” he groused to relatives. Then his aunt saw a newspaper article on the Taliesin Fellowship. What it didn’t say, Silman added, was that “they paid Wright to work for him.” The financial obstacle was considerable, but Wright’s reply to Tafel’s application was something anyone young, talented, ambitious, and shallow-pocketed would want to hear: “Pay what you can, but come.” That exchange, we all now know, changed his life. It also put him, for better or worse, in the orbit of the mentor he would always call “Mr. Wright.” After striking out on his own in 1941 (not without friction, but never with an irreparable break), Tafel contributed distinguished buildings to New York City and other locations, particularly in the religious, academic, residential, and community-service sectors. He worked and lived, Silman noted, with his Wright books constantly open. For the notoriously Manhattan-phobic master, meetings with his old apprentice “Mr. Tafel” may have been the sole unmixed blessing during his stays at the Plaza Hotel. Tafel also developed a second career writing and lecturing about his association with Wright after closing down his solo practice in 1986.

“A part of him never left Taliesin,” Silman commented, raising the unanswerable question of whether the association held him back in certain respects. Tafel’s strong sense of social mission and his delight in bringing quirky, broadly allusive touches to modern buildings on large and small scales add up to a distinctive approach that cannot be reduced to its undeniable chief influence; neither can he be seen apart from it. Tafel, as Caroline Rob Zaleski discussed in thorough detail, brought Wright’s visual language to SUNY Geneseo, where he was involved for a decade in planning that Nelson Rockefeller-era upstate campus (alongside Rolf Myller, Richard Snibbe, and Einar Lindholm), and designing several major buildings. He served as associate-in-charge on the three-winged Fine Arts Building, whose double-height atrium hints at Wright’s Larkin Building (1906-1950) in nearby Buffalo. “I was bothered by an enormous problem of identity,” Zaleski quoted Tafel saying, reluctant either to be wholly overshadowed or to dissociate himself. Wright explicitly spoke of himself as a spiritual second father to Tafel (as to other Fellows), with stronger obligations than mere “blood” parents could claim. With such burdens and benefits intertwined, their combined weight is scarcely imaginable.

Yet the distinctive elements in Tafel’s work, particularly in churches and synagogues, contended Kimbro Frutiger, call for reappraisal and renewed appreciation. Tafel’s willingness to juxtapose historical and local reference points in what Frutiger calls a “rebus of forms” arguably anticipated Postmodernism. One of his important Episcopal churches, St. John’s in the Village (West 11th Street at Waverly Place), is commonly considered a Modernist take on the Greek Revival, but instead strikes Frutiger as “Brutalist Romanesque Orthodox.” In the small-scaled Madison Avenue Methodist Church near Harlem’s Taft Houses, Tafel experimented with fake-mansard roofing, to intriguing effect, long before that form acquired parking-lot fast-food connotations; “awkward is sometimes quite interesting,” Frutiger commented. His likely masterpiece is Church House at First Presbyterian (Fifth Avenue at 12th Street), a home for a progressive religious community and an “anti-Guggenheim… straightforward, but not normative,” where precast panels of quatrefoil ornamentation complicate a façade that visually rhymes with the brickwork and terra cotta of Chicago’s Chapin and Gore Building by Hugh M. G. Garden and Richard Schmidt. Far from being a two-dimensional epigone of Wright, Tafel dared to abandon the organic and weave witty, personal idiosyncrasies with public service.

Tafel’s primary-source archive is now in the hands of Columbia’s Avery Library, which also holds the massive Wright archive in a partnership with the Museum of Modern Art. Janet Parks and Tania Franco described the materials now available for scholars and the public, including a wealth of correspondence and other documents at Avery, with Wright’s models and other three-dimensional materials at MoMA. The labors of untangling and organizing Tafel’s writings and records were formidable, as reflected in Franco’s meta-archiving blog. What emerges is a portrait of an energetic, engaged, complex urban citizen, the product of a progressive upbringing in his youth and a prolific contributor to the architectural literature in his maturity. With Avery serving as a kind of posthumous virtual Taliesin, master and apprentice are now back together. On some level, one would like to imagine that Mr. Wright has made his peace with New York at last.

Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Oculus, IconThe Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.

Event: Practice Post-50: Edgar Tafel in New York
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.23. 14
Speakers: Janet Parks, Curator of Drawings and Archives, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University; Tania Franco, Project Archivist, Edgar Tafel Archive; Kimbro Frutiger, Architect, Author, Edgar Tafel’s Religious Work: Design, Traditions, Ethics; Caroline Rob Zaleski, Author, Edgar Tafel and SUNY Geneseo: Lessons from Frank Lloyd Wright; Robert Silman, President Emeritus, Robert Silman Associates (moderator); Carol Ann Fabian, Director, Avery Library (introduction); Rick Bell, FAIA, AIANY Executive Director
Organizers: Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University and AIANY Historic Buildings Committee

Comments are closed.

Changes Editor's Note
Maria Torres-Springer, president and CEO of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), at the Center for Architecture.
Policy Pulse: NYCEDC’s Maria Torres-Springer: Advancing Architecture One Industry at a Time Policy Pulse
Ekaterina Zavyalova, Co-founder, FOAM, Architectural Designer, CDR Studio; George Valdes, VP Product, IrisVR; Ian Harris, Founder, Arbuckle Industries; David Basulto, Founder and Editor-in-Chief, ArchDaily; and Benjamin Prosky, Executive Director, AIANY/Center for Architecture
Challenging the Entrenched Conventions of Architecture At the Center for Architecture
Damon Rich, Founding Principal, Hector Design Service, joined Nina Rappaport, Publications Director, Yale School of Architecture, for the March Oculus Book Talk.
Oculus Book Review: Vertical Urban Factory Factory by Nina Rappaport Book Reviews
1 - “Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music”
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
Center for Architecture Grants and Scholarships Center News
New Deadlines New Deadlines
"New Practices New York 2016," opening 05.12.16
On View On View
04.14.16: At “Legends: 3 Harlem Architects, 4 Decades,” Percy Griffin, AIA, Principal, Griffin Architect and Planner; Arhthur Symes, NOMA; and Francis L. Turner, RA, Principal, Francis L. Turner Architect and Planner, explored their work and opportunities as architects of color in relation to their community with Jack Travis, FAIA, Founder, Jack Travis Studio and AIANY Board Secretary.
Sighted Sighted
Classifieds Classifieds
AIANY, AIANJ & AIANYS Work with PANYNJ to Improve Bus Terminal Competition Brief to Benefit Architects and the Public From the Executive Director
#PromoteTheVote Policy Pulse
4 World Trade Center by Maki and Associates, 2014 Building of the Day
Call for Buildings of the Day Editor's Soapbox
Jacob van Rijs, Principal, MVRDV
The Raucous Rows and Ecstatic Stacks of MVRDV At the Center for Architecture
Klaus Jacob, Geophysicist and Urban Environmental Disaster Expert at Columbia University, returns to the Center for Architecture.
Hindsight Plus Foresight for a Future Requiring Insight At the Center for Architecture
Slide-tracing allows students to identify shapes within the façade of a building. These shapes are also identified as important building parts that become part of students’ new architectural vocabulary, reinforced by a walking tour in Greenwich Village.
Our Visual Language of Architecture Learning by Design
Kirsten Childs
In Memoriam: Kirsten Anne Childs (1943-2016) In Memoriam
1 - Towers of Justice
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
New Deadlines New Deadlines
“AIANY 2016 Design Awards,” opening 04.15.16
On View About Town
04.04.16: AIANY Architecture for Justice Committee organizers gathered with architects of the Staten Island Courthouse at the Center for Architecture to discuss how the new structure celebrates the civic traditions of our judicial system. (l-r) Jeff Hyman, AIA, RicciGreene Associates; Christopher Halloran, AIA, Ennead Architects; Kristy Gasparino, AIA, LEED AP, AIANY Architecture for Justice; Susan T. Rodriguez, FAIA, Ennead Architects; and Frank Greene, FAIA, RicciGreene Associates.
Sighted Sighted
Classifieds Classifieds
Editor’s Note Editor's Note
AIANY and Center for Architecture Executive Director Benjamin Prosky helps students at PS1 create scale models of iconic Seaport structures.
Back to School From the Executive Director
Congratulations to our new fellows!
New Fellows Honored for Professional and Public Good At the Center for Architecture
Big News on the Zoning Front: City Council Passes ZQA Policy Pulse
Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars
Oculus Quick Take: Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars Podcast
1 - MCC Theater Finally Breaks Ground
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
New Deadlines New Deadlines
"Annual Rings: A New Generation of Wood Architecture in Finland" through 04.30.16
On View On View
03.10.16: The speakers of the AIANY Global Dialogues program “H2O: Ceremony, Control, Conservation,” explored the historic, ceremonial, spiritual, economic, and environmental connections between water and architecture in various contexts. (l-r) Carolina Salguero, Founder and Director, Portside New York; Stephanie Goldberg, AIA, LEED AP, Principal, Lab Architect Group; Richard Roark, ASLA, LEED AP BD+C, Partner, Olin Studio; Roland Lewis, CEO, Waterfront Alliance; Anthony Acciavatti, Partner, Somatic Collective; and Archie Lee Coates IV, Principal, PlayLab.
Sighted Sighted
Classifieds Classifieds
Benjamin Prosky, AIANY and Center for Architecture Executive Director at AIA Grassroots.
Establishing Roots at Grass Roots From the Executive Director
Lobbying Law Update to Impact Architects Policy Pulse
Speakers and organizers of "Program Cubed: Shaping our Intentions, Our Experiences, and Our Buildings."
Programming Spaces: Shaping User Experience from the Building to the Space In Between At the Center for Architecture
Tighthouse roof solar panels
Towards 80×50: Row House Retrofit At the Center for Architecture
1 - Meet The Met Breuer
In the News Uncategorized
2016 AIANY Design Awards
2016 AIANY Design Awards Winners Announced At the Center for Architecture
Names in the News Names in the News
04.29.16: Call for Entries: AARP’s Re-defining Home: Home Today, Home Tomorrow Design Challenge
New Deadlines New Deadlines
"Annual Rings: A New Generation of Wood Architecture in Finland" through 04.30.16
On View On View
03.09.16: NYC Department of Design and Construction (DDC) Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora and Chief Architect Margaret Castillo unveiled the agency’s Design and Construction Excellence 2.0 Guiding Principles at the Center for Architecture. (l-r) Feniosky Peña-Mora, Commissioner, NYC Department of Design and Construction; Margaret Castillo, FAIA, LEED AP, Chief Architect, NYC Department of Design and Construction; Carol Loewenson, FAIA, 2016 President, AIANY; and Benjamin Prosky, Executive Director, Center for Architecture/AIANY.
Sighted Sighted
Free Webinar for AIANY Members
Classifieds Classifieds
AIANY 2016 Design Awards winners will be announced on 02.29.16
AIANY 2016 Design Awards Winners’ Announcement Editor's Note
Architects, Your Vote Matters Policy Pulse
Sam Schwartz, PE, President and CEO, Sam Schwartz Engineering; and Alex Garvin, Hon. AIANY, President and CEO, AGA Public Realm Strategists
Oculus Book Review: Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars by Sam Schwartz Book Reviews
Dream House students hard at work on their models.
Studio@theCenter – February Vacation Camp Learning by Design