Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West

While neither Mary nor I are students of architecture per se, we are both interested and fascinated by it, and in particular the works of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Among his most famous designs are Falling Water, near Pittsburgh, completed in 1935, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, completed shortly after Wright’s death at the age of 91, in 1959.

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Wright believed in designing structures which were in harmony with humanity and its environment, a philosophy he called organic architecture.  That style or approach was never more apparent than in the winter home and school he built in the Arizona desert, starting in 1937.  Taliesin West in Scottsdale was a living laboratory for Wright, and according to our tour guide, every year after he returned from a summer in Wisconsin, he would grab a hammer and start making his way through the complex.

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Apparently, he would walk through each room making changes or shouting orders to apprentices closely following with wheelbarrows and tools. He constantly changed and
improved on his design fixing unforeseen problems and addressing new situations. Throughout the years he added an addition to the dining room, the cabaret theatre, music pavilion and numerous other rooms.

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Being in the desert, water could scarcely be found, but Wright loved the sound of running water. This resulted in an investment of over $10,000 to dig a well deep enough to provide sufficient water for the campus.

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When Wright and his family first arrived in Scottsdale they found Native American petroglyphs among the rocks. One, seen at the beginning of our guided tour, shows what may be hands clasping. Wright stylized the figures into interconnected lines, which became the symbol of Taliesin West.

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Taliesin West’s walls were made from local desert rocks, stacked within wood forms, and filled with concrete.  Wright always favored using the materials readily available rather than those that would have to be transported to the site.

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In the picture below, Mary, doing her best Price is Right impression is indicating the presence of a cactus that grows sideways out of the wall.   The story goes that one of Wright’s apprentices noticed it at the very beginning of construction and was afraid that he would be very upset about it.  Instead, Wright apparently smiled, and said “leave it”, and it has been there ever since.  It blooms for one or two days each year.

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Natural light also played a major part in the design as you can see from the file photo below. In the drafting room, Wright used translucent canvas to act as a roof (later replaced by plastic because of the intense wear from the Arizona sun).

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Wright believed natural light aided the work environment he had his apprentices in, keeping the inside of his building in touch with the natural surroundings.  This is something I’m very familiar with because in every ad agency I ever worked at, the Art Directors were always given offices with the best natural light.

All of the furniture and decorations were designed by Wright and the majority built by apprentices, as was the case with these chairs in the picture below.

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Near the end of our tour of Taliesin West, we were brought into the cabaret theatre.  This room featured one of the more brilliant aspects of Wright’s design.  He built it with six sides in an irregularly hexagonal shape, and in the process provided the theatre’s occupants with what is said to be 95% acoustic perfection.  Someone sitting in the back row can hear the lightest whisper from a speaker on stage.  This was demonstrated to us by the sounds that came from this piano tucked into a specially designed “nook”.

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The grounds and buildings feature the works of a very talented sculptor by the name of Heloise Crista.  She originally came to Taliesin to study Wright’s philosophy and
architecture and eventually became part of the Taliesin Fellowship. In 1956 she made a bust of Frank Lloyd Wright, her first recognized sculptural work.

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Her vast body of work is permanently exhibited at Taliesin West today.

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One of the more interesting things we learned on the tour is that in 1957, Wright provided an unsolicited proposal for the construction of a new Arizona Sate Capitol.  The drawing of that proposal is on display in his office at Taliesin.

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You’ll note in the picture that his design included a pyramid-like structure with a tall spire emanating from the middle of it.  The proposal was rejected as being too radical for its time. Ironically, in 2004, the city of Scottsdale ending up building the 125 foot spire from the proposal along with various other structures from the drawing, and they can now readily be seen at the Promenade Mall, at the corner of Scottsdale Road and Boulevard Road.

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At the base of the structure are a number of Heloise Crista sculptures.

There were parts of Taliesin we could not see as they serve as the private residences of the students who are working through the apprentice program.  Many of them still carry on in the tradition of Wright, adding their own touches to his design philosophy, as evidenced by the lamp below, created by one of the current batch of students.

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Taliesin West lives on today as the site of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, and the home of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and archives.

Our 90 minute tour began and ended at a gift shop that was filled with Wright-inspired furniture and all manner of objects for the home that captured the spirit of his creativity.  Let me tell you that there were no bargains to be had in that shop, and even the smallest of items came with a significant price-tag.  Even so, we left with a couple of “souvenirs” from our visit, and of all the attractions, sites and museums we visited during our 3 weeks in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, this is the one thing I would go and do again without any hesitation.

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