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.

Fast Forward From the Executive Director
AIANY Welcomes New Policy Coordinator Policy Pulse
Rendering of a possible Queens waterfront.
A Century of Zoning A Closer Look
Mario Gooden, Principal, Huff + Gooden Architects; Professor of Practice, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation
Oculus Book Review: Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity by Mario Gooden Book Reviews
Students from The Neighborhood School pose with their model of One World Trade Center during a visit to SOM’s office where the model is now displayed.
Learning By Design:NY Students Visit SOM Learning by Design
1 - Festive Façade for Supportive Housing Project
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
09.16.16: Call for Entries: AIANY COTE Awards 2016
New Deadlines New Deadlines
“EXTRA-ORDINARY: New Practices in Chilean Architecture,” through 09.03.16
On View On View
07.20.16: Susan Szenasy, Hon. AIANY, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher of Metropolis, toasted the magazine’s 35th anniversary at Seaport Studios.
Sighted Sighted
Classifieds Classifieds
Chilean architect Smiljan Radic presented insights into his very personal creative process.
Notes on Smiljan Radic At the Center for Architecture
DOB NOW Policy Pulse
Center for Architecture Announces 2016 Walter A. Hunt, Jr. Scholarship Winner Center News
"EXTRA-ORDINARY: New Practices in Chilean Architecture" reviewed in Wallpaper.
Center Mentions Center News
1 - Shhhhh. It's Still a Library
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
09.16.16: Call for Entries: AIANY COTE Awards 2016
New Deadlines New Deadlines
“EXTRA-ORDINARY: New Practices in Chilean Architecture,” through 09.03.16
On View On View
07.12.16: The Center for Architecture kicked off the New York City inauguration of "House Housing: An Untimely History of Architecture and Real Estate" with a conversation between Patric Derrington, Marc Holliday Professor and Director of Real Estate Development Program, Columbia GSAPP; Reinhold Martin, Director, Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, Columbia GSAPP; and Lissa So, AIA, Founding Partner, Marvel Architects.
Sighted Sighted
Classifieds Classifieds
Alex Alaimo, AIA, AIA National Associates Committee, interviews AIANY and Center for Architecture Executive Director Benjamin Prosky.
YOUNG ARCHITECTS WANTED! From the Executive Director
Special Citation: ARE Instructors
Annual Meeting 2016 At the Center for Architecture
Lobbying Law: Amnesty Period Ends Soon! AIA News You Can Use
Closing Keynote: Understanding Neighborhood Change: Voices of a Gentrifying New York by
Eleven Years of Progress: FitCity 2016 Policy Pulse
Speakers of Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants: Critical Challenges for Sustainable Urbanization
Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants: Critical Challenges for Sustainable Urbanization From the Desk of the President
15th Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia
More than a Building: The 15th Venice Architecture Biennale Reports from the Field
Partners in Design: Alfred Barr and Philipp Johnson
Oculus Book Review: Partners in Design: Alfred Barr and Philip Johnson Book Reviews
A Genealogy of Modern Architecture by Kenneth Frampton.
Oculus Quick Take: A Genealogy of Modern Architecture Podcast
Speakers of “The Education of the Architect: Incorporating Social Science."
The Ways and Whys of Incorporating Social Science Methodologies into Architecture Curricula At the Center for Architecture
Students at the Center for Architecture's first after-school program.
Exploring Architecture: After School at the Center Learning by Design
1 - Photo Finish
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
“EXTRA-ORDINARY: New Practices in Chilean Architecture,” through 09.03.16
On View On View
09.16.16: Call for Entries: AIANY COTE Awards 2016
New Deadlines New Deadlines
06.07.16: Annabelle Selldorf, FAIA, Principal of Selldorf Architects and 2016 AIANY Medal of Honor recipient, was joined at the Center for Architecture by Vishaan Chakrabarti, Founder of Partnership for Architecture & Urbanism, to discuss the role of architects today.
Sighted Sighted
Classifieds Classifieds
Join us at the AIANY Annual Meeting! Editor's Note
NYC Lobbying Law: What You Need to Know Policy Pulse
From the portfolio of Sergey Pigach, 2016 Allwork Scholarship recipient.
2016 Center for Architecture Design Scholarship and Eleanor Allwork Scholarship Recipients Center News
A Burglar's Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh.
Oculus Book Review: A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh Book Reviews
Speakers and organizers of "Connecting Research and Age-Friendly Design," organized by the AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee and the AIANY Design for Aging Committee.
Connecting Research and Age-Friendly Design At the Center for Architecture
Students from the IS 392 Architecture Club pose with their models for redesigning the school’s Journalism Lab and key project leaders. (l-r) Howard Stern, Design Educator, Center for Architecture; IS 392 Alise Braick, STEM Teacher, and Loren Cooper, Assistant Principal;  Penda Aiken, Chair, Teach to Excel Foundation; and IS 392 Principal Ingrid Joseph.
Students Propose New Designs for Their School’s Journalism Lab Learning by Design
Walter A. Hunt, Jr., FAIA
Walter A. Hunt, Jr., FAIA (1941 – 2016) In Memoriam
Fred Shen at the Shen Milsom & Wilke’s 30th anniversary celebration on 05.11.16.
In Memoriam: Fred Shen (1942 – 2016) In Memoriam
1 - The Regeneration of Red Hook
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
09.16.16: Call for Entries: AIANY COTE Awards 2016
New Deadlines New Deadlines
"New Practices New York 2016, "through 07.23.16
On View On View
06.06.16: Margery Perlmutter, Esq., RA, Chair of the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals, discussed how the BSA operates and how it can help enhance the viability and design of development projects in NYC.
Sighted Sighted