[excerpt from Prairie Mind (Somov, 2017)]

For the story of Taliesin, after all, is old: old as the human spirit.

FLW, An Autobiography



Life reinvents itself, non-stop. The cosmic process continues on, without pause. Wright knew of this resilience of nature.

The Celtic classic, Book of Taliesin, tells a story of a bard, named Taliesin, who must have been a charming guy with a “shining brow” (that’s what “taliesin” means in Welsh).

The Book of Taliesin is about yesterdays and tomorrows, about the inevitable metamorphosis of life, about the organic process of nature rebuilding itself.

“The second time I was created [says Taliesin] I was a blue salmon. I was a dog, I was a stag; I was a roe-buck on the mountain side, I was a treasure chest, I was a spade; I was a hand-held drinking horn; I was a pair of fire-tongs for a year and a day; I was a speckled white cock among the hens of Eiden, I was a stallion standing at stud; I was a fierce bull; I was grain growing on the hillside. […] The hen, my enemy, red-clawed and crested, swallowed me. For nine nights I was a little creature in her womb; I was ripened there. I was beer before I was a prince. I was dead, I was alive.” (Wood, 2000, 86-87).

You too change non-stop, alongside with the Universe. Yesterday you were this, tomorrow you might be that. Dead yesterday, alive today, dead again tomorrow … And so life goes, does it not?! At least, that’s what Celts believed. And if this sounds a lot like a doctrine of reincarnation, no need for surprise. Celtic culture is but a distant echo of a Vedic culture.

But what does this have to do with architecture?! Buildings, if they are living organisms as Wright had posited, reincarnate as well. The Taliesin building is a prime example of this cycle of architectural rebirth.

When Wright decided to build a house for himself – “a recreation ground for my children and their children perhaps for many generations more” – he decided to name it Taliesin, the “shining brow” – not a crown! – of a Wisconsin hill on a family plot that he had known intimately since childhood.

The house was built in 1911 and was rebuilt twice, in 1914 and in 1925. The “shining brow” burnt bright … not with light, however, but with darkness. Taliesin – originally a vision of tranquility – was to become a site of Wisconsin’s largest massacre. But eventually, when Wright died in the house in 1959, Taliesin – just like Fallingwater – was to become a place of tranquility.

Wright began planning Taliesin after leaving his wife for a mistress. Architecturally, Taliesin was to be a Prairie School house, a natural house, an organic building. It was completed in 1911. But in 1914 Taliesin had to be rebuilt after a disgruntled house servant, Julian Carlton, slaughtered seven Taliesin indwellers – Wright’s architectural associates, some of his house staff, and Mamah Borthwick (Wright’s mistress) with her two young children. All seven were ambushed in the living quarters of the house and axed to death. When the killer was done, he set Taliesin on fire.

In 1925 the house burnt again, this time due to electrical problems. In 1927 Taliesin went into foreclosure due to Wright’s financial problems. But Wright was able to raise enough money to buy it back from the Bank of Wisconsin. In 1928 Wright reoccupied the house. He lived in Taliesin until his death in 1959 and designed many of his architectural masterpieces there, including the Fallingwater house. At present, Taliesin is a museum and has been designated as a National Historical Landmark.

Wright wrote:

“The story of Taliesin, after all, is old: old as the human spirit.”

What is the story of Taliesin? I think it is the very story told by the ancient bard – the story of rebirth, of the cycle of life. It is the story of human and inhuman resilience.

What I mean by this is that human resilience sometimes calls for inhumanity. Inhumanity is when we let go of our humanity in order to stay alive. This is the animal way. The modern-day apes that we are, we tend to forget that we are nothing but animals. And re-accessing this humble realization allows us to refocus on the very humbling business of survival. Inhumanity is part of being human too. It is important that we do not judge inhumanity too harshly, from some moral pedestal. Most who judge simply haven’t yet been tested by life themselves. They do not yet understand the existential imperative of survival.

I find it significant that Wright did not abandon the site, did not put it up for sale, did not ditch it after the woman that he loved (and her two small children) were slaughtered at Taliesin.

As I see it, Wright wasn’t callous or narcissistically un-empathic when he moved on again and again and again, from tragedy to disaster to fame and past scandals. He simply did what he had to do with that animalistic single-mindedness that is buried deep inside all of us. He was – I think – in touch with his animal side, the very side that allows us to be “survivors.” That is the story of Taliesin.

Do you – I mean you, Reader, – do you think you would’ve have been able to “move on” so well while staying put? Do you think you would’ve been able to live and create amidst such memories?!

Wright could. With characteristic un-sentimentality, he could. What are we to learn from this? Was he indifferent? Insensitive? Is this apparent lack of empathy the very hallmark of narcissistic self-involvement?

I think not: Wright’s architecture is full of sensitivity. His writings are full of nuance. His opinions about humankind are replete with keen insight. So, then how could he?! How could he rebuild – not just the place itself – but its meaning? And how could he embody this new meaning so well that he could keep on lighting the numerous fireplaces of Taliesin for years to come without being alight with sadness and reminiscence?

Once again, I think Wright had tremendous resilience – the resilience of the very nature that was his gospel. Nature doesn’t grieve. Nature doesn’t mourn. Nature is simply reborn. Nature doesn’t look back, only forward. It seeks no meaning from bird’s-eye view of abstraction, it simply plows through, worms through whatever obstacles that come its way. That’s what we have to learn from Wright.

Nature, according to Wright, doesn’t build on the past. It just builds anew. He says as much:

“The New live[s] for itself.”

The Taliesin building features an interesting walkway into nowhere – a skywalk of sorts, for walking out into the open, into the mid-air of the unknown.

The cosmic process that continuously rebuilds itself is self-liberated. Like an arrow, it just flies – and not necessarily towards a teleological target. This incessant process of ceasing-and-arising just unfolds, propelled by its inherent evolutionary, self-reinventing vector of becoming. We are part of this process. We too have to keep on moving, whether there is meaning ahead or not.

This process of metamorphosis is the river of impermanence and it runs right through us. Buddha talked about. Heraclitus talked about. Wright built about that. Architecture was Wright’s language. Impermanence, adaptation, harmony – these were his messages.

For Wright, architecture is spirit at work. And –

“any building is a by-product of eternal living force, a spiritual force taking forms in time and place appropriate to man.”

And even though buildings come to life at some point in time and at some point in time might be burned to the ground,

“they were sculpted by the spirit of architecture in passing, as inert shapes of the shore were sculpted by cosmic forces.”

Time tolerates no forms, no fixities, no shapes. None of us can enter the same river twice. Everyone of us is Taliesin. We have to change, morph, reincarnate. We have no option but to accept the ever-renewing cosmic process that shapes us through choice and circumstance.

So, let us witness the metamorphosis – fearlessly, un-sentimentally – with a shining brow and a drunken song.

Wright didn’t get stuck in his grief because he understood Goethe’s dictum that “death [is] nature’s ruse in order that she might have more life.” He was known to quote this line.

Wright was able to rise from the ashes and rebuild because like the ancient Chinese sage Lao-tse, whom Wright also quoted, he understood that “the present [moment] [is] ‘the ever-moving infinite that divides Yesterday from Tomorrow …” (Wright’s italics).

This present that you and I are right now in is “a moving infinite” – an infinity in passing. And since it has to pass, why mourn?

Wright plumbed the depths of this impermanence. If Kauffman hadn’t been so in love with the flowing waters of the Bear Run, Wright himself – sooner or later – would have built a house cantilevered over falling water.

It’s impossible to rebuild – like Wright did with Taliesin – without accepting the necessity of change.

Do you have a sneaking suspicion that I am overstating Wright’s credentials as a sage in regard to impermanence? Well, lookie here, Skeptic:

“We can only know that all things are in process of flowing in some continuous state of becoming.”

These are Wright’s words. A mind that understands this, grieves not, but looks onto What Is with an unblinking shining brow of detached acceptance.

Wright’s lover, Mamah Borthwick, and his brainchild, the Taliesin house, were killed and burned on August 15th of 1914. But “by September 7, barely three weeks after the murders, amid the ashes and burnt timbers of Taliesin, the ever-resilient Wright was hosting the semi-annual picnic of Sauk Country rural mail carriers,” writes William Drennan in his book Death In a Prairie House. Drennan adds that the local publication, Weekly Home News, reported that the picnic “was one of the most successful and enjoyable meetings the assembly has held.”

Did Wright suffer? Of course he did. An early witness, Frances Inglis, reported overhearing “howls of [Wright’s] unrestrained sobbing” (Drennan, 2007). Wright’s son, John Lloyd Wright, observed that “something in him died with her, a something lovable and gentle that I knew and loved …”

Wright himself, years later, in looking back, noted that “after the first terrible anguish, a kind of black despair seemed to paralyze my imagination in [Mamah’s] direction and numbed my sensibilities. The blow was too severe. I got no relief in any faith nor yet any in hope.”

But was Wright broken? I don’t thinks so. Knocked down – yes. Broken – no. And, by the way, I see no contradiction between acceptance and the cries of agony of a phoenix being reborn from the ashes of its past life. Why shouldn’t each bout of resilient self-resurrection be accompanied by a birth-battle-cry?!

Barely hours after Wright saw the devastation and the dead bodies, he “spent a good part of the afternoon cutting down the flowers – bright zinnias, dahlias, and nasturtiums – that Mamah had planted in the courtyard garden and all around the grounds of Taliesin. Finally he collected great fragrant heaps of them. He sent a couple of men down to the grounds of Unity Chapel with instructions to dig a deep grave near the burial sites […] He instructed some of the carpenters to build a simple, unadorned casket out of fresh white pine. Wright filled the caskets with flowers.” (Drennan, 2007).

“In action, there is release from anguish of mind,” wrote Wright. “I could feel now only in terms of rebuilding, I could get relief only by looking forward toward rebuilding.” (My italics).

Rebuilding is how nature grieves. When you mow the lawn, blades of grass lose no time on ritual or reminiscence. They immediately get back to the business of living. And that’s why you have to mow your lawn again and again and again.

Cosmos copes by moving forward. Nature doesn’t look back. Bodies wake up next morning and yearn for coffee and biscuits as they always do. Only mind – a self-reflective detour of Nature – is in a habit of looking back.

Resilience begins when we let go of our minds, when we allow our minds to ignore themselves. Bodies waste no time – why should minds?

Let us all rise again, as Taliesin did, from within, migrating from form to form. Relentlessly, unafraid of the sandstorms of time.

[excerpt from Prairie Mind (Somov, 2017)]