Carports, drive-up banking windows, aisle lighting, flip-up movie seats…
That’s a short list of uncredited Frank Lloyd Wright innovations that a Taliesin West docent lists among Wright’s unpatented gifts to the American lifestyle.
These and other design details were spawned in Frank Lloyd Wright’s homes and working laboratories in Wisconsin (Taliesin) and Arizona (Taliesin West).
Wright’s reputation as an architect was and is global. Here is an amusing clip from the TV Show “What’s My Line” in which Wright made an appearance in his later years that suggests his stature at the time.
For those of us who have toured Falling Water and the many Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Chicagoland and/or his home in Spring Green, the tour of Taliesin West helps to complete the story of a man with profound influence on 20th Century architecture in the USA and Japan.
The tour of Taliesin West explains both the architecture that you see and the human stories behind it. We get both a glimpse into Wright’s complex personality and the cult of personality that surrounded him.
We learn that in the winter of 1935/6 Frank Lloyd Wright almost died of pneumonia leading him to seek warmer climes than his Spring Green, Wisconsin architectural school and working laboratory would allow. He bought 640 acres in the Scottsdale area for $12.50 per acre. At that time Scottsdale had a population of 123 people, one road and three structures.
Teaching architecture to paying students had become Wright’s way to weather the dearth of architectural projects during the Great Depression. He had nearly two dozen students whom he had gathered in a “Taliesin Fellowship” in Spring Green Wisconsin and with his move he told these students to caravan down to Arizona to meet him. There they literally camped out on the land and began the multi-year project to build what became Taliesin West, to this day an accredited architectural school.
The tour paints a picture of the rough life the students led to labor in actually building the structures in which they would work and later live. Everything was done the Wright way.
Imagine living in a tent, doing hard labor to build during hot days, hunting for your food, and then donning tux or ball gown to come to Taliesin West’s cabaret to hear a musical performance or give one, as learning an instrument was a curriculum requirement. One gets the picture that students were not just attending Wright’s school. Rather, they were immersed in his exacting picture of how the world should be.
The buildings themselves are familiar to anyone who has toured any other Frank Lloyd Wright structure.
Wright’s trademark use of space compression to ready you to experience the feel of a room opening before you is seen throughout the house, studio, kiva (meeting hall), and theater/cabaret designs.
Originally windowless, the many low-lying structures of Taliesin West have no foundation and yet have not suffered any untoward settling through the decades. This is because of the hard caliche earth that provides a foundation.
Amazingly, during the tour we learn that Wright and his students attempted to dynamite this strong caliche at one point to make a sub-grade theater unsurprisingly shattering all the glass that by that time had been incorporated into the structures. What on earth were they thinking?
Wright, who had lost a prior wife and family in a massive fire at Taliesin, took great pains to build water features around the Taliesin West structures to protect them from the periodic brush fires from the desert surrounds.
We see his love of all things Asian in the Chinese sculptures he implanted into various portals.
We see the ample space he has allocated to cars and learn that in his lifetime he owned 93 automobiles.
We see his trademark orange-red doors—actually his patented color called Cherokee Red.
The Wright tour of Scottsdale can continue beyond Taliesin West’s borders. In downtown Scottsdale you can see the historic preservation of Hotel Valley Ho that was designed by one of Wright’s students and includes many design elements that harken Wright’s style such as design reliefs in concrete. Better yet, just travel down the road to see Cosanti, the studio of Wright’s one-time student Paolo Soleri, who took exception to much of Wright’s vision of how America should be built.
Taken altogether, it is as if you are listening in on an architectural debate of great consequence that still shapes our thinking and building designs today.
To plan your visit to Taliesen West visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation website pages on Taliesin West or call their offices at 888-516-0811.
Photos: Andrew Pielage unless otherwise indicated