Edgar Tafel 1912-2011

RIBA Journal, April 2011, Obituary

In 1932, Frank Lloyd Wright – 65, penniless and out of work, his reputation tarnished by scandal – transformed his crumbling Wisconsin estate into the Taliesin Fellowship. For nearly three decades, young idealists flocked to the American Midwest to be part of this unique experiment: at once architecture school, workcamp, bohemian community and autocratic fiefdom.

Edgar Tafel, who died in January aged 98, was one of Taliesin’s best-known alumni. During his nine-year apprenticeship, Tafel played a lead role in the construction of both Johnson Wax and Fallingwater, as well as sharpening the great man’s pencils, working the 600 acre farm and playing the piano at Saturday night recitals.

Tafel went on to found his own practice, designing 80 houses, 35 religious buildings and three college campuses, becoming an accomplished architect in his own right. Despite Wright’s ill-treatment of him when he left Taliesin, Tafel spent a lifetime tending his mentor’s legacy. He consulted on the renovation of Fallingwater, Johnson Wax and Wingspread (the Johnson family home), and ensured the survival of two prairie-style interiors from the Francis Little House in Minnesota, demolished in 1971. With his books Apprentice to Genius (1979), an unrivalled account of life at Taliesin, and About Wright (1993) an edited album of recollections, plus a documentary film and lectures around the world, Tafel became a worthy Boswell to America’s most celebrated architectural genius.

Edgar Tafel was born in New York City, the son of cultured and socially progressive Russian immigrants. When he was eight, the family joined the anarchist Ferrer Colony in New Jersey – an experiment in communal living. ‘The colony school demanded no discipline,’  Tafel wrote in Apprentice to Genius. ‘A combination of arts and crafts, gardening and vegetable farming, and sports gave us vigorous spirits, but our academic training was a bit flimsy.’

Back in New York, Tafel enrolled at New York University architecture school. In the library he came across Wright’s Princeton lectures. ‘He seemed to be speaking out of the pages directly to me,’ he wrote.  In 1932, at the end of his first year, he read about Wright’s plan to set up what was misleadingly dubbed a new ‘school’ of architecture. Tafel applied, and was accepted.

Tafel’s unconventional schooling was the perfect preparation for life at Taliesin. This was learning by doing, with few classes, and within several weeks Tafel was an accomplished plasterer. While the rest of the country was deep in the Great Depression, the Fellowship was a thrilling place to be: ‘We apprentices were young. Inexperienced. Willing. Devoted,’ Tafel wrote.  ‘He taught us his way, we couldn’t miss, there was an awakening in architecture, and we were in its midst.’ Wright was famously tyrannical and regularly fired Tafel in a rage about one thing or another, before instantly rehiring him. He refused to allow apprentices to pursue their own projects (‘There is only one architect,’ he said), and in 1941 a frustrated Tafel decided to strike out alone. Wright was furious.

During World War II Tafel’s draughting skills earned him a safe post in Calcutta as a mapmaker. In 1945, he returned to New York and set up the practice he would manage for the rest of his career.

His output includes the Church House at the First Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village – a modern extension to a 19th-century landmark – and a 1964 masterplan for the State University of New York at Geneseo, that houses his 1969 Broadie Fine Arts Building, viewed by Tafel as his most exciting work.

Though he sought to continue in Wright’s architectural style, his personal approach could not have been more different. Colleagues speak of a generous, good-humoured raconteur with the optimism to ride the ups and downs of running a small architectural practice.

Tafel married twice. His first wife divorced him and his second died of cancer within a few years.  He had no children.

This article at RIBA Journal