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Dissertation Medal Winner 2001

Twelve Part Narrative

Part 1 Dissertation 2001
Gwyn Lloyd Jones
Oxford Brookes University Oxford | UK

Whether travelling to the ultimate destination of California, or to some intermediate point, the direction of migration in the USA is always west. I undertook a personal odyssey across America to investigate the themes of migration, place, identity and architecture. As a guide for my journey, I took along the architect and showman Frank Lloyd Wright for company. He too was of Welsh decent, and even spoke an odd couplet or two in the old language, so together we could chat and drink coffee. I took him along because I had heard that he had regularly made the trip out West long ago, and so surely he would know the route and its cultural meanings.

Every year from 1935 onwards, Frank Lloyd Wright travelled between his two homes, Taliesin North in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona, to make use of the warm winter climate in the desert. What would be revealed if I were to reconstruct this journey today? What has become of the influence of Wright on the American landscape? Starting my journey in Alexandria, Virginia, I retraced his route between the two Taliesins, and then extended the route in an attempt to visit my only American relative in Los Angeles.

This present study seeks to look at the experience of ordinary Americans in making themselves a place within a new landscape. Recent immigrants, tenth-generation Americans and Native Americans were all interviewed. I enquired of them when we met: how do you make a home in the USA? I recorded conversations about their homes, ancestry and sense of identity. Other measures that I took were far more prosaic, and included daily photographs of the environment, car mileage statistics, newspaper clippings, post-cards and souvenirs. From this range of abstract measures, I have written twelve different essays that relate to twelve cultural themes and to twelve different states of the USA .

Gwyn Lloyd Jones

Gwyn's essay takes something that has become a literary cliche, the personal odyssey of discovery across the USA, and gives it a fresh twist. The starting idea for his study was to retrace the annual route taken by Frank Lloyd Wright between Taliesin North and Taliesin West, and then use this journey as a means to analyse the cultural landscape of contemporary America. It was an idea of such brilliant simplicity that I immediately wondered why no-one had thought of it before.

A less intelligent student than Gwyn would then of course have stuck to the original brief with dogged tenacity. Gywn, however, is too smart for this. His writing soon expands beyond Frank Lloyd Wrght to encompass the wider themes of place, ethnicity, identity, belonging, etc. He finds that his journey is constantly disrupted, his itinerary scrambled, by the people that he meets en route. And he is forever tempted to follow detours left by those involved in the American process of migration. For much of the study we are not watching Frank Lloyd Wright and other migrants, but instead are following, like the complex trails of private eyes in Raymond Chandler novels, previous generations of watchers such as Reyner Banham and Jean Baudrillard.

Not only is the resulting essay superbly written, combining biography and literature with historical and political analysis, but many of Gwyn's specific insights are quite startling. The one-block-deep Gay/Artists Quarter in Columbus, Ohio, is revealed as a 'Potemkin Village' of political correctness. The egocentric, unsettled delusions of Frank Lloyd Wright are traced forwards to other Mid-Western cultural fantasists like Bob Dylan and Eminem.

Finally, it has to be said that the study is an absolute visual treat. It mixes together travel photographs with newspaper cuttings, post-cards and other ephemera of everyday American life. All in all, it is an astonishing piece of work, and really ought to be published.

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