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.

David Burney, FAIA, speaking at FitCity 8 at the Center for Architecture.
A Warm Welcome for David Burney, FAIA Editor's Note
"The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley" at the Center for Architecture.
The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley At the Center for Architecture
Thomas Gluck, Principal, GLUCK+; Jane Smith, AIA, IIDA, Founding Partner, Spacesmith; AJ Pires, Partner and Executive Vice President, Alloy Development; Phil Bernstein, FAIA, RIBA, LEED AP, Vice President, Building Industry Strategy & Relations, Autodesk; Tomas Rossant, AIA, 2015 President, AIANY
Risky Business At the Center for Architecture
Jane Sanders, AIA, CPHD, Principal and Owner, Jane Sanders Architect, presented at “EnerPHit: The Passive House Standard for Energy Retrofits.”
Active House: EnerPHit Policy Pulse
AIANY Global Dialogues Committee co-chairs Dan Gallagher, AIA, and Hana Kassem, AIA.
Big Dreams: The Master Plan in Architecture At the Center for Architecture
3rd- through 5th-grade home school students tested the strength of columns, beams, arches, vaults, and domes at the Center for Architecture.
Home School Students Study Classical Greek and Roman Architecture and its Influence on Neoclassicism Learning by Design
Architecture/Astrology by Dan Graham & Jessica Russell, with illustrations by Mieko Meguro.
Oculus Quick Take: Architecture/Astrology Podcast
1 - German Cultural Center's New Permanent Home
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
04.17.15: Call for Entries: AIANY 2015 Housing Awards
New Deadlines New Deadlines
“BxW NYC” through 04.11.15
On View: At the Center for Architecture + About Town About Town
04.02.15: Nancy Prince, RLA, Deputy Chief of Design, and Mitchell Silver, Commissioner, NYC Department of Parks & Recreation; Richard Zweifel, FASLA, President, ASLA; Jennifer Nitzky, ASLA, ISA, President, and Kathy Shea, Executive Director, ASLA-NY, gathered at the Center for Architecture to celebrate the winners of the ASLA-NY 2015 Design Awards.
Sighted Sighted
Classifieds Classifieds
Benjamin Kracauer, Michael Graves with Emily Kracauer, and Cynthia Phifer Kracauer at the Warehouse, 1982 (photographer unknown).
Michael Graves, FAIA, a Memory In Memoriam
Laurie Kerr, FAIA, Urban Green Council; John H. Lee, NYC Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability; David Bomke, The Fulcrum Group; William Braham, FAIA, University of Pennsylvania; and Lance Hosey, FAIA, LEED AP, RTKL
Sustainability Experts: It’s Time for Radical Response At the Center for Architecture
Save the Date! FitCity 10 - 05.11.15
Save the Date – FitCity 10 Policy Pulse
women. wikipedia. design. #wikiD
women. wikipedia. design. #wikiD: ArchiteXX’s Ongoing Campaign to Write Women Architects into One of the Internet’s Most Widely Consulted Databases At the Center for Architecture
Rick Bell, FAIA, AIANY and Center for Architecture; Hana Kassem, AIA, LEED AP, KPF; Renatto Anelli, Instituto Lina Bo Bardi; Marcelo Ferraz, brasil arquitetura; Anne Marie Baranowski, AIA, LEED AP, AMBA; Heidi Kippenham, AIA, PBDW Architects; Denise Hochbaum, AIA; Giancarlo Latorraca, Museu de Casa Brasileira; and Yehuda E. Safran, Columbia GSAPP
Lina Bo Bardi’s Popular Rise At the Center for Architecture
Keller Easterling, Professor at Yale School of Architecture, was the speaker at the March Oculus Book Talk.
Oculus Book Review: Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, by Keller Easterling Book Reviews
Tomas Hernandez, Jr., DBC Technologies; Warren Redeker, Prosurance Redeker Group; James F. Brown, BFF Consulting; Melinda Mathews, Assoc. AIA, Agility Recovery; and Mark Ginsberg, FAIA, Curtis + Ginsberg
25 Great Ideas if Your Design Practice is Knocked Out by a Disaster – or to Avoid One Altogether At the Center for Architecture
Leonardo Bonanni, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, Sourcemap
Designing Sustainable Supply Chains At the Center for Architecture
Weintraub’s study focuses on Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, and the effects of hands-on learning experiences.
2015 Arnold W. Brunner Grant Winners Announced At the Center for Architecture
1 - The Strand Links Downtown Brooklyn
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
04.17.15: Call for Entries: AIANY 2015 Housing Awards
New Deadlines New Deadlines
“The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley” opening 03.26.15
On View About Town
03.12.15: Long-time partner Peter Samton, FAIA, and Mrs. Lee Gruzen celebrated the life of Jordan Gruzen, FAIA, of Gruzen Samton, at a tribute hosted at the Center for Architecture.
Sighted Sighted
Classifieds Classifieds
Archtoberites touring 4 World Trade Center during Archtober 2014.
Call for Entries: Archtober 2015 Building of the Day Editor's Note
The seven celebrated jurors awarded the Best in Competition award to Songpa Micro Housing by SsD. (l-r) Nick Winton, Anmahian Winton Architects; Richard Maimon, FAIA, Kieran Timberlake; Stan Field, SAIA, RIBA, Int’l Assoc. AIA, Field Architecture; Teddy Cruz, Estudio Teddy Cruz; Simon Frommenwiler, HHF Architects; Johanna Hurme, 5468796 architecture; Hadrian Predock, predock frane architects; and Beatrice Galilee, Associate Curator of Architecture and Design, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Zeitgeist Microclimate: 2015 AIANY Design Awards Jury Symposium At the Center for Architecture
Representatives from AIA New York State, AIA New Jersey, and AIA New York Chapter accepted the a Component Excellence Award for Knowledge Sharing Initiatives. The group was awarded for its work on the AIA Regional Recovery Working Group, which has expanded and shared knowledge.
AIA on the Hill: Grassroots 2015 Policy Pulse
Wendy Feuer, Assistant Commissioner of Urban Design + Art + Wayfind at the NYC Department of Transportation.
Safe Streets, Great Streets At the Center for Architecture
High school students designed their own micro-unit apartments in the Center’s three-day vacation studio program.
(Very) New Practices Learning by Design
Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities
Oculus Quick Take: Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities Podcast
1 - The Palazzo of Pierrepont Street
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
04.17.15: Call for Entries: AIANY 2015 Housing Awards
New Deadlines New Deadlines
“BxW NYC” opening 03.02.15
On View About Town
02.25.15: AIANY 2015 President Tomas Rossant, AIA, welcomed attendees to “netWORKing" event at GD Cucine, and invited members to learn more about the Chapter’s advocacy initiatives.
Sighted Sighted
Classifieds Classifieds
"BxW NYC" opens at the Center for Architecture on 03.02.15
Designed by Women: Architecture for All Editor's Soapbox
Zdeněk Lukeš, curator of “Prague Functionalism: Tradition and Contemporary Echoes,” led visitors on a tour of the exhibition.
Inside “Prague Functionalism” At the Center for Architecture
Jordan L. Gruzen, FAIA; Julian Zugazagoitia, former Director, El Museo Del Barrio; William M. Singer, AIA, Ronnette Riley Architect; David Burney, FAIA, former Commissioner NYC Department of Design + Construction at the groundbreaking ceremony for El Museo del Barrio
Thoughts on an 80-Year Life – Jordan L. Gruzen, FAIA (1934-2015), IBI Group ▪ Gruzen Samton In Memoriam
The NYC Department of City Planning released a series of proposed changes to the Zoning Resolution that would remove barriers that constrain housing production, encourage better quality buildings, promote senior housing, and reduce unnecessary parking requirements.
Citizen Architect: Getting Your Voice Heard Policy Pulse
Dan Graham, Artist; Mieko Meguro, Artist; Jessica Russell, Architect; and Rick Bell, FAIA, Executive Director, AIANY.
Oculus Book Review: Architecture/Astrology Book Reviews
William Wheeler, Director of Planning, MTA; Vincent Chang, MA DipArch (Cantab) RIBA, AIA, Partner, Grimshaw Architects; Eve Michel, AIA, Vice President of Development & Chief Architect, MTA Capital Construction Company; Sandra Bloodworth, Director, MTA Arts & Design; Uday Durg, Fulton Project Executive, MTA Capital Construction Company; Robert Eisenstat, AIA, Chief Architect, Design Division, Engineering Department, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; and Craig Covil, Principal and Infrastructure Leader, ARUP
Fulton Center…A Vision Realized At the Center for Architecture
Hive (Bleecker Street) (2012) © Leo Villareal, NYCT Bleecker Street/Lafayette Street Station. Commissioned by Metropolitan Transportation Authority Arts & Design.
The Art Under-World: the MTA Arts for Transit Program Reports from the Field
Speakers of "Smart Cities: Delivering Sustainable Urbanism."
Infrastructure IQ At the Center for Architecture
1 - A Modern Classic Makes a Good Neighbor to Adjacent Historic District
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News