The Legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West Endures
Read the original story, first published on Houzz, here.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth. And it’s been 80 years since the iconoclastic architect first set foot on 640 acres of untouched desert land at the base of the McDowell Mountains in what is now Scottsdale, Arizona. Wright bought the land within months of that first visit, and his crew of young apprentice architects began building Taliesin West. The building became his winter home, architectural studio, and school.
Now a National Historic Landmark, Taliesin West is open to the public through guided tours and programs. It remains a sort of laboratory for architects, students and remodelers who are learning the craft, as well as for those maintaining and updating the aging structures Wright and his students designed and built.
Frank Lloyd Wright, Olgivanna Wright (his wife), and their architectural apprentices began traveling to Arizona from Taliesin—Wright’s original Wisconsin home and studio—in the 1920s to consult on the Arizona Biltmore hotel and other projects. A near-fatal bout of pneumonia and the high cost of heating Taliesin during Depression-era winters convinced Wright in 1937 to search for a place to create a desert “camp” where the group could live cheaply and enjoy winter sunshine. Most of the buildings constructed at Taliesin West, as the Arizona location was called, were built by the apprentices under Wright's direction between 1938 and the mid-1950s.
“Wright used Taliesin West as an architecture lab where he experimented with materials, forms and technology,” says Stuart Graff, CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, the nonprofit that oversees both Taliesin locations. “His influence still holds today—how we live, how we build, how we affect the environment.”
The apprentices—young men and women who paid tuition to study architecture and building with Wright—constructed Taliesin West largely by hand using rocks culled from the site and concrete laid up in plywood forms to create “desert masonry” walls, redwood for beams, and, originally, canvas for the roofing material, which created a filtered, natural illumination for the interiors.
The materials were inexpensive and linked the buildings to the arid site. Wright designed the angled structures to mimic the forms of the nearby mountains, with details that were abstractions of cactuses and Native American imagery. Taliesin West’s director of preservation, Frederick Prozzillo Jr., says that the site is currently testing modern, more durable materials that replicate the original canvas roofs.
“It’s a challenge to maintain and preserve these historic structures,” Prozzillo says. “The buildings are all custom designs, built by young people who were learning about architecture and construction. But we are trying to be faithful to the concept that, at its core, Taliesin West was a desert camp."
Taliesin West is tucked into its desert site, lush with creosote, chain-fruit cholla, ironwood and palo verde trees. Taliesin, a Welsh word meaning “shining brow,” was chosen by Wright to emphasize the importance of hard work as well as his siting technique of placing structures on the “brow” of a hillside instead of on a hilltop. Taliesin West was more than 25 miles from Phoenix—with not much in between—when it was first being built.
Often, the only lights the Wrights and apprentices could see were the campfires of shepherds who ran their flocks through the property seasonally, moving sheep between low desert and higher forested grazing grounds. After several parcels were sold during the decades, the compound now sits on 491 acres of mostly open desert land. Viewed at dusk, the main building includes second-story apartments and guest quarters, as well as a broad deck with views over the desert valley.
Inside Taliesin West
The Wrights’ private living room was large enough to accommodate the formal Saturday evening gatherings they enjoyed hosting, where young apprentices could learn social graces while mixing with clients and notable visitors.
The furniture, including a built-in banquette, was designed by Wright. The Wrights and the apprentices lived at Taliesin West seasonally from October to May before decamping to Wisconsin.
The glass for the living room was recycled from a downtown Phoenix department store that was being torn down. A collage for the room was created by author, congresswoman and ambassador Clare Boothe Luce, who, with her husband, Henry Luce, founder and publisher of Time, were frequent visitors to Taliesin West. The living room's translucent ceiling—now a polycarbonate material—was originally cost-efficient canvas, which was subject to dry rot after a season or two in the desert sun.
The cabaret theater, completed in 1950, was one of the last buildings at Taliesin West designed by Wright before his death in 1959.
The theater, with a sloping floor, is partially below grade, and its angled seating provides perfect sightlines of its small stage. The theater was used for many formal dinners. The Wrights occupied a large table at the top, while guests and apprentices sat at smaller folding tables along the lower levels.
The acoustics are so perfect that it’s said the Wrights could eavesdrop on anyone’s conversations. Movies, as well as concerts, often provided after-dinner entertainment. The theater is still in use for special dinners and small-scale performances, and can be seen on tours.
By night, Taliesin's architectural studio serves as a lantern toward a gravel patio and the citrus grove. The doors to the studio are painted Cherokee red, a signature Wright color. Wright’s architecture studio was one of the first buildings constructed at Taliesin West. Wright sat at the back of the studio, with a piano nearby when he needed musical inspiration. Apprentices, who were also called the Fellowship, sat at other drafting tables.The desert studio was where Wright worked on the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Marin County Civic Center, and other notable works.
A Modernist School, Built to Last
Wright began his apprenticeship program in 1932. The program became formalized and was called the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, offering an accredited degree program starting in the late 1980s. More recently, it became the School of Architecture at Taliesin after reaching a fundraising goal to become independent of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, allowing it to maintain its accreditation.
Through a June 2017 donation, the school has received use of the David and Gladys Wright home in Phoenix for community programming and educational activities. The house also will be used as a hands-on architecture lab as restoration on it continues. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the home in 1950 for his son and daughter-in-law.
Enrollment is expected to be about 25 students this fall, many coming from around the globe to study how Wright’s theories translate into modern architecture.Today, the studio is used by students working on a three-year master’s degree program or an eight-week immersion session.
Wright’s first apprentices camped out in the desert in canvas shepherd’s tents, a tradition that continues today with students who come to earn a master’s degree. Wright believed in hands-on experience to train good architects and builders. He also thought camping was a good way to understand a site’s weather patterns, flora and fauna.
More than 100,000 visitors come to Taliesin West annually to experience a variety of guided tours that include the main buildings, the Wrights’ living quarters and student shelters. Concerts, lectures, plays and other performances are also open to the public.
For more information, visit the Taliesin West website.