Friday Finds: Letters to Apprentices

Wright - Letters to Apprentices CoverLetters to Apprentices: Frank Lloyd Wright is a publication containing selected letters from Frank Lloyd Wright to his many apprentices. Alongside the many letters is commentary from the editor of the book and the Director of Archives of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and The Frank Lloyd Wright Memorial Foundation, Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer. This commentary provides context for some of the letters and information on the goings-on in Wright’s life and works at the time.  The letters themselves contribute valuable insights into Wright’s personality and work, as well as those of the Taliesin Fellows to whom the correspondence primarily concerns.

In the preface, Pfeiffer explains how the letters mostly pertain to “the Taliesin Fellowship, that group of young men and women who were his apprentices from 1932 to 1959…[and] throughout those years many hundreds of Taliesin Fellows arrived” (pg. ix).  The book seeks to capture the experiences of Taliesin Fellows, both in their work and their relationships with Wright.  As arguably the most influential and prolific architect of his time, the opportunity to work with Wright was undoubtedly one of the greatest opportunities any young architect could hope for.  The style of the Taliesin Fellowship, preparing students to be architects within only a few years and nothing like a standard curriculum, influenced training programs and apprenticeships across the country, in addition to giving the program a reputation that increased work opportunities.  Over time, “as there came an increase in architectural work, the demands required of him to answer letters…necessitated that letters to applicants and former apprentices be briefer,” so the longest and perhaps most interesting letters are near the start of the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932.

Interestingly, Wright made a point to note in a 1932 letter to an applicant that Taliesin “contemplates exactly 100 apprentices, about 40 girls and 60 boys,” and was intended to serve as an extension of the Taliesin studio Wright - Letters to Apprentices Pg 107(pg. 14).  The fact that Wright, as early as 1932, made a point of including women apprentices is fascinating, even somewhat radical.  Today, many still note an excess of gender discrimination in the field of architecture, as well as a dearth of female architects.  In contrast, Wright dedicated 40% of the apprenticeships to ensuring women had opportunities.  While there may have been no follow-through on this goal (Wright notes that he has decreased the number of fellows to 70 and mentions that the fellowship would likely be only 30% girls), there are letters to female apprentices throughout the collection.  It is worthwhile to note that Wright offers less praise for his female students than his male students, sometimes merely relegating them to “furnish” a project or “housebreak the owners” (pg. 96).  He also proves somewhat haughty at times, such as after a student left Taliesin, telling him, “we all make errors of judgment, if we have any judgment, and being a young fellow, you ought to acquire a collection of errors in your own name as I have in mine,” indicating that he believes the student’s abandonment of Taliesin to be a mistake he will later regret (pg. 97). Wright also showed himself through the letters to be dedicated to keeping up with his pupils, often offering them work or advice, and asking about their families and personal lives.  While Wright definitely showed a preference for his male students, he remained a loyal correspondent with many of his students whom he respected.

As one of the most famous architects in history, Frank Lloyd Wright remains a fascinating figure to study, for the controversy of his personal life, for his celebrity, and for his unique style.  There is something enigmatic about Wright.  He is remembered as fiercely proud of his own accomplishments, selective in his taste, and loathe to give compliments.  Yet in his correspondence with his students, he is shown to be loyal, to have great faith in his students’ talents so long as they display a similar loyalty and dedication to their work, supportive of female architects (certainly for the time period), and yes, a bit haughty, yet more affable than he is remembered. Letters are a unique historical resource – they unveil personality and information that, for example, Wright’s autobiography, would not. These letters were never meant to be ready by anyone other than the recipients, making them a more unvarnished, honest source than something written to be read publicly.  In this sense, Wright’s letters are a powerful resource.  As much of a celebrity as he was, and as much as he and his work has been researched, no source could explore his personality and the complicated relationships he had with his apprentices as well as the letters in Letters to Apprentices do. The collection of letters provides captivating insights into one of America’s best-known architects, supplying glimpses into Frank Lloyd Wright and the proteges who followed him in shaping modern architecture.

New Book: Building Histories

Rajagopalan, Mrinalini. Building Histories: The Archival and Affective Lives of Five Monuments in Modern Delhi. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Mrinalini Rajagopalan’s 2016Rajagopalan - Cover book Building Histories: The Archival and Affective Lives of Five Monuments in Modern Delhi examines the “modern lives, from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth century, of Islamic monuments of Delhi, originally built between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries”: the Red Fort, Rasul Numa Dargah, the Jama Masjid, the Purana Qila, and the Qutb Complex (pg. 2).  Rajagopalan’s main interest is in the state-led projects of preserving these monuments, so she explores the bias present in the selection of these monuments and the historical narratives they support, which is then reflected in the archival representation.  She seeks to complicate and challenge these narratives to develop “new conceptual histories of the Indian monument” (pg. 2).

For each of the five monuments, Rajagopalan explores the architectural history, preservation history, and the master narratives surrounding them.  In each chapter there is a discussion of these features, as well as the role of colonialism in shaping these sites and how they were used by the British to retain their power.  In the chapter on the Purana Qila, for example, reveals the combating narratives surrounding the ancient palace: in one the palace was built by the first Mughal emperor of Delhi (and added onto by later Suri rulers), while the other suggests that the palace was the capitol mentioned in a Hindu epic, Mahabharata.  Despite the truth of the first narrative, the preferred story in India is the second, an urban legend that Indraprastha, the capitol in the epic, lies beneath Purana Qila.  This story has gone “from myth to history,” as Rajagopalan writes (pg. 124).  How?  Why?  These are exactly the questions which fascinate the author.  She argues that this occurred because of the myth’s popularity among academics, who helped to make the story an important part of Delhi’s history and character, as well as the changing political and cultural landscape of India over the course of centuries.  It became more important in this time of cultural upheaval for Hindus to have an origin story for Delhi, rather than the reality that the site was founded by a Muslim Mughal emperor.  At a time when tensions between Muslims and Hindus reached a zenith, during the Partition of India into India and Pakistan, this myth became ever more embedded in popular conscious, eventually being accepted as history instead of legend.  All five monuments Rajagopalan discusses relate to a similar challenge to the current master narrative surrounding the sites.  In some way, each of the monuments, so carefully preserved, help to perpetuate a narrative which is, at best, misleading.

A trend in historical scholarship in recent years has been to challenge “the master narrative.”  Building Histories is an excellent example of this scholarship.  Rajagopalan carefully examines and researches the narratives of these five monuments, crafting a compelling argument that the master narratives behind the sites served a purpose for someone or some group, whether it be a politician or Hindus.  The title itself reveals a great deal: histories are built.  History is written by the winners, the wealthy, and the powerful.  They are allowed to shape the narrative that is passed on to future generations and mold it to their purposes.  The truth is malleable until historians like Rajagopalan begin to challenge the accepted narrative. Only then can the true history become clear. People think of historians as stuffy old men in bowties lecturing about the ancient world. Truly though, history is one of the most dynamic disciplines to study. The field is constantly changing, with new sources and evidence coming to light, ripe for interpretation and incorporation into the narrative.  In this sense, too, history is built.  But, hopefully, this time it is built to give a voice to those who had previously been silenced, and to provide a more complete story of the past than that told before.  History may have been written by the winners, but it can be rewritten by the newest generation of dynamic, perhaps even bowtie-wearing, historians.

Friday Finds: Sam Houston’s Texas

Flanagan - Cover Sheet copySue Flanagan’s book Sam Houston’s Texas “attempts to place Houston in proper perspective against the backcloth of past events and to show him still a part of the changing pattern of our time” (pg. ix).  The book is organized chronologically, running from 1832 to 1863, with a chapter devoted to each year.  Included in every chapter are photographs of relevant buildings and the Texas landscape, as well as historical context for the year, based mostly in primary sources from the era.

Beginning in 1832, Flanagan examines Houston’s childhood in Virginia, his time as a Congressman and Governor in Tennessee, and as a delegate for the Cherokee Tribe to Washington.  Houston came to Texas to buy up land and serve as an envoy to Native Americans in the territory, a role assigned to him by then-President Andrew Jackson.  Moving year-by-year, Flanagan details the increasing dissatisfaction in Texas with Mexican governance, Houston’s rise to General of the Texas army, the price of Texas independence, and the early years of the Texas Republic.  One of the longest chapters is the one on 1836, the year Texas won independence from Mexico, featuring discussion of the Battle of the Alamo, the massacre of all inside the mission, and the subsequent surrender of Santa Anna to Houston less than two months after the loss of the Alamo.  Houston declared on March 2, 1836, that “Independence is declared; it must be maintained.”  Houston recognized that once Texas was free of Mexico, its best chance of maintaining independence was joining the United States.  However, before Texas joined the Union, it was its own nation for ten years, with Houston remaining a prominent leader throughout, serving twice as President of the Republic of Texas, a Senator to the US Congress, and Governor of Texas. Flanagan’s book ends in 1863, the year of Houston’s death. Throughout this narrative are photographs of relevant places and spaces, showing the Texas Houston fought for and loved so dearly.

Published in 1964, Sam Houston’s Texas came just over 100 years after Houston’s death and just short of 100 years of the start of the Civil War.  Houston foresaw the Civil War, and feared that secession and alliance with the Southern states would irreparably damage Texas and the United States.  Instead, he thought Texas would fare better as its own empire if it conquered Mexico.  With this in mind, as Governor of Texas, Flanagan - LonghornHouston refused to secede from the United States.  This stemmed not from a belief in abolition (Houston himself owned slaves) but rather from his wish to avoid more war on Texas soil.   As a result, Houston was forced out as Governor and replaced with someone more sympathetic to the Confederate cause.  Much like in the 1860s, the 1960s were filled with racial tension and turmoil. President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan, passed the Civil Rights Act the same year that Sam Houston’s Texas was published, a reminder of how much had changed in the last century for the state and the nation.

Sam Houston’s Texas is a fascinating look at Sam Houston himself, as well as the indelible mark he left on Texas.  Houston is an incredibly complicated figure: a representative for Native American rights, yet an advocate for slavery; a believer that Texas should be in the United States while also wanting Texas to be a great nation in its own right; a war hero who wanted to avoid war at all costs in later life.  He was the first President of the Republic of Texas, a U.S. Senator for Texas, the man who made Santa Anna surrender and won Texas’ independence in a battle lasting only 18 minutes against a seemingly unstoppable Mexican Army, and he is the namesake for the city of Houston. The tales of Sam Houston are larger than life.  Flanagan’s book reveals the man who inspired the legends.  Using Houston’s own words, letters, and accounts from others who knew him, Flanagan shows Houston to be a complicated and flawed, yet remarkable man. In short, Houston was human, with all the complexities and contradictions that come with the human experience.

Many Americans have gone through a reckoning in recent years, realizing that the Founding Fathers were not infallible men.  For years they have been literally placed on pedestals, had cities, buildings, and monuments named for them and built in homage to them, with few questions asked about who they were beyond the iconic image. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and many of the other Founding Fathers preached the values of liberty and equality while owning slaves.  This does not make them entirely unworthy of admiration, but it does mean that Americans must recognize that they were imperfect men who accomplished exceptional things. Texans must face a similar reckoning with their heroes, and Sam Houston’s Texas is an excellent start to rewriting that historical narrative. Houston was all things: a friend to Native Americans, a slave holder, an American, a Texan, a leader of the Texas Revolution, and an advocate against the Civil War.  These seemingly contradictory traits make Houston a more tangible, relatable figure. Sam Houston the legend provides an unattainable vision of what it means to be human.  Sam Houston the man, with all his flaws and contradictions, provides a realistic example to which Texans can aspire. Sam Houston will forever live on in Texas folklore, but it is time to separate the legend from the man.  It may be simpler or more appealing to tell tales of Houston as a perfect, Arthurian icon who led Texas to independence, but the truth of the man behind the legend is a far more fascinating story.

New Book: Counterpreservation

Sandler, Daniela. Counterpreservation: Architectural Decay in Berlin                Since 1989. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2016.

In her book Counterpreservation: Architectural Decay in Berlin Since 1989, Daniela Sandler explores the “lively pockets of decay” in Berlin, “teeming with social and cultural activities” (pg. 1).  The Sandler - Counterpreservationbuildings promote “cooperative living initiatives, public interest projects, and thoughtful engagements with history,” and have become an essential element of Berlin (pg. 1).  Sandler argues that counterpreservation is “a distinct phenomenon…not about ruins…[but] rather about ruination, about the state of decay, the process of becoming decrepit” with a fate yet unknown, unlike other ruins of Europe (pg. 4).

Sandler explores these buildings as living projects, cultural centers, sites of memory, and ruins in East Germany.  For example, Sandler discusses how “these cultural centers…represent the vibrant alternative culture and bohemian life that have made the city famous since the postwar era and even before,” especially since the Berlin Wall fell and all that space “appeared to be up for grabs” (pg. 91).  She uses the Haus Schwarzenberg as the main focus of the chapter, showing it to be representative of “this moment of experimentation and spontaneous appropriation of architectural and urban spaces”in the district of Mitte from the 1990s to the present.  Sandler examines the neighborhood of Mitte at large, providing better context to understand Haus Schwarzenberg and its place in Mitte and Berlin.  After being threatened with eviction and with privatization, public intervention and external financial support allowed Haus Schwarzenberg, allowing the coffee shop to promote “a mire diverse, inclusive, and experimental city” (pg. 131).  Following a discussion on the destruction of older buildings and sites, including the Berlin Wall, in contemporary times, Sandler concludes the book with a look backwards at some of Berlin’s most traumatic moments.  The two World Wars and the division of Berlin had lasting effects on the city.  Sandler writes, “historic preservation and restoration, museums, archives, and research are to a certain extent a retrogressive attempt to reverse death and recover what has already passed” (pg. 242).  Instead, Sandler suggests, that even though these buildings may one day fall, they have still made their mark on the city and had a lasting impact on the space and people around them.  Though they may not exist anymore, they will have been, in a way, just the beginning of the story.

What Sandler has done in Counterpreservation is turn historians’ and architects’ pleas for preservation on their heads.  In the United States, there are few old buildings because Americans are always wanting to build something new.  This is not the case in much of Europe, though Berlin stands out from many other historic cities. Because of the damage suffered during World War II bombings, much of Berlin had to be rebuilt from the wreckage.  Many lament this fact, and wish that buildings could be better preserved.  Sandler argues that instead of trying to preserve these buildings forever, we should protect them while we can, appreciate them, incorporate them into our lives, but not work so hard to protect them.  Part of what makes human life so precious is that humans are not immortal, so it is best to live fully.  The same can be said for buildings, per Sandler.  Nothing can be built to last forever – buildings have a lifespan too; much like humans, they have a small, temporary, yet important part to play in a much longer story.

We have this book and so many more new books available this week!  Come enjoy!

Friday Finds: Images de Salzbourg

Published in 1947, Images de Salzbourg - CoverImages de Salzbourg is an Italian booklet featuring a brief introduction to and numerous photographs of Salzburg, Austria. The introduction, in Italian, describes Salzburg as a “city of festivals” and “one of the most…original [cities] of Europe” due to its love of music (especially Salzburg-born composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) and natural beauty (pg. i)

The photographs themselves highlight the landscape and architecture of Salzburg.  Nestled in a valley near the Austrian Alps, the scenery is breathtaking.  On one side of the city are green rolling hills, and on the other, the rugged Alps.  The Hohensalzburg Castle, a medieval fortress, sits atop a mountain in the heart of the city, its white stone gleaming in the sunlight as it Images de Salzbourg - Table of Contentswatches over Salzburg.  At the foot of the mountain is Salzburg Cathedral, renowned for its Baroque style of architecture.  Mirabell Palace is a common feature in the photographs, as it provides an uninterrupted view to Old Town Salzburg, including the Salzburg Cathedral and the Hohensalzburg.  The narrow streets, the beautiful buildings (some of which are Baroque, others medieval, and still more Renaissance in style), and the grand landscape of Salzburg make it, as the introduction notes, “one of the most attractive cities” in Europe (pg. i).

Images de Salzbourg - HillsThe photos capture Salzburg’s beauty in black and white, merely two years after the end of World War II.  Austria had been occupied by Nazi Germany from 1938 to the end of the war in 1945.  Adolf Hitler himself was born in Austria, and the nation welcomed the annexation by the Third Reich.  The Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp was established not long after the Reichstag established its government in Vienna, as well as hundreds of other sub-camps across Austria.  In 1945, Austria seceded from the Third Reich, following heavy Allied bombing efforts and the capture of Vienna by the Soviet Union’s Red Army.  After the war, Austria was divided into Soviet, American, French, and British zones, only regaining full independence in 1955. Salzburg was at the heart of the American zone. Although Salzburg had been hit heavily by the bombing, most of its major buildings and architecture remained intact, turning Salzburg into a major tourist destination for Americans.  The photographs in Images de Salzbourg, taken in 1947, reveal a city mostly unscathed physically from World War II.

Today Salzburg is primarily known  for its gorgeous location near the Alps, its utterly charming Old Town, as the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and as the setting for The Sound of Music.   Images de Salzbourg shows the city to be remarkably intact two years after World War II.  But while its buildings and landscape were as beautiful as ever in 1947, Salzburg’s citizens had to contend with the horrors committed by the Nazis.  Salzburg installed small metal stones outside of homes where Jewish citizens had lived before they fled, or were taken to concentration camps or ghettos. The stones mark their names, their birth and death dates, and the place of their death.  They are called “Stolperstein” in German – literally translated as “stumbling stones.”   In a city of festivals, of music and Mozart, of such grandeur in the form of its buildings and its landscape (which somehow escaped the devastating damage seen in other European cities following World War II), the Stolperstein serve as a reminder of Austria’s complicity in carrying out the atrocities of the Holocaust.  Walking through the winding cobblestone streets past pastel-colored buildings, with the gleaming Hohensalzburg above and the Alps beyond, it is easy to forget the darkness of the 1930s and 1940s, as Images de Salzbourg does, and become lost in the charm of Salzburg.  The Stolperstein jut out from the otherwise flat sidewalks throughout the city, tripping tourists and locals, forcing them to look at their feet as they walk, taking note of every name.  Max Matschke, 1897-1939, Deported.  Uri Aron, 1942, Auschwitz.  Irma Herz, 1870-1942, Theresienstadt.  Countless names, dates, and fates are etched forever into brass stones along the streets of Salzburg, a reminder that for all its charm and beauty, the Holocaust came to Salzburg too.Images de Salzbourg - Mirabell