Taliesin West: Frank Lloyd Wright's Conquest of the Desert. Scottsdale, Arizona 1937

Posted by George Pudlo on April 17, 2013 at 10:30 AM Comments comments (0)

I learned of a site twenty-six miles from Phoenix, across the desert of the vast Paradise Valley. On up to a great mesa in the mountains. On the mesa just below McDowell Peak we stopped, turned, and looked around. The top of the world!

These words are quoted from Frank Lloyd Wright's An Autobiography, describing his first view of the land that is now occupied by Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West. 

Magnificent -beyond words to describe! Splendid mystic desert vegetation...

Anybody that knows anything about Frank Lloyd Wright knows that nature was the inspiration behind his architecture. In fact, Wright said the his religion was Nature with a capital "N". Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's whimsical winter camp, was built according to the landscape of the desert. Frank Lloyd Wright was quite familiar with Arizona by the time he built Taliesin West in 1937, having first journeyed there in 1928 to consult on the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, and lived there temporarily in 1929 in his Ocatillo Desert Camp in Chandler, Arizona, while developing the unbuilt San-Marcos-in-the-Desert compound for Dr. Alexander Chandler.

The 1930's were a time of revival for Frank Lloyd Wright on both a personal and professional level. The 1920's had been tumultuous years for Wright; he finally received a divorce from his first wife Catherine "Kitty" Tobin, with whom he'd been estranged from since he built Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin in 1911, and he finally married Miriam Noel, whom he met shortly after the Taliesin Tragedy in 1914. The marriage with Miriam Noel was short-lived, and by the time their divorce was in order, Wright had met his third and final wife, Olgivanna Hinzenburg. From a professional standpoint, few of Wright's projects came to fruition in the 1920's, among them were the concrete textile block houses and the Hollyhock House in Los Angeles, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan, and a home for his cousin, Richard Lloyd-Jones in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The early 1930's weren't so great for Wright, either. He nearly lost Taliesin to the bank, and subsequently formed the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation with investors to get himself out of debt. 

In 1932, the Taliesin Fellowship was formed as Frank Lloyd Wright's school of architecture. With unusually disciplined methods, the Taliesin Fellowship learned by doing, which included building their own shelters. The mid 1930's brought about two of Frank Lloyd Wright's greatest executed projects: Fallingwater and the SC Johnson Administration Building. In 1937, Frank Lloyd Wright's commission for Fallingwater was $7,800, and he took that $7,800 and poured it into the development of his third and final home and studio complex, Taliesin West. 

After a serious bout of pneumonia that nearly took Wright's life, it was suggested by both Wright's doctor and his wife Olgivanna to spend his winters outside of Wisconsin's harsh climate. And from 1937 onward, summers with the Wright's were spent at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and winters were spent in Scottsdale, Arizona at Taliesin West. The annual caravan down to Taliesin West included not only Frank Lloyd Wright and Olgivanna Wright, but also their children and the entire Taliesin Fellowship. 

As with Wright's previous homes that he built for himself -the Oak Park Home & Studio, and Taliesin- Taliesin West was an ongoing project, one which he altered and refined until his death. When Taliesin West was first built, it was truly a desert camp. The roofs and openings were covered in canvas to allow for protection, and a beautiful, warm glow in the interiors. Windows weren't installed at Taliesin West until the later 1940's through the early 1950's, at the demand of Olgivanna. Wright later said it was one of the best ideas he'd had. The final rendition of Taliesin West stood and stands as a series of buildings, including offices, studios, living quarters, theaters, and recreational space, interconnected by concrete terraces and low walls of what Wright termed "desert stone".

Today, Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West is owned and maintained by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and functions as their headquarters and site of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives.

View of pool between the living quarters and Kiva at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West

Foreground: Frank Lloyd Wright's Office at Taliesin West      Background: Theater at Taliesin West

Passing the studio and workshop at Taliesin West, leading to a wading pool and living quarters

Studio and workshop at left, connected to the dining hall at right, Taliesin West

Dining Hall at Taliesin West

Entrance to the Cabaret at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West

Cabaret at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, built 1949

Cabaret at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, built 1949

Outside of the "Great Room" at Taliesin West


Entering the Taliesin West complex in Scottsdale, Arizona

Music Pavilion at Taliesin West, the last building constructed at Taliesin West, 1956

Taliesin West in the desert of Arizona

Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright 1937

Posted by George Pudlo on November 10, 2011 at 2:50 PM Comments comments (0)

Taliesin West

On the other end of the spectrum of Taliesin, so very similar, but yet so different, is Taliesin West. Located in Scottsdale, Arizona, is Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter camp. Taliesin West is Frank Lloyd Wright’s third home and studio, built between 1937-1959, following the Oak Park Home & Studio of 1889/1898, and Taliesin of 1911.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s first encounter with the desert came nearly a decade before he would begin building Taliesin West. In 1928, Wright was invited by Albert Chase McArthur, a former draftsman of Wright’s in the Oak Park studio, to visit Arizona where he was planning on building the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. It is a common misconception that the Biltmore belongs to Wright’s portfolio, however Frank Lloyd Wright was only a consultant for the plan. McArthur planned (and succeeded) in using Wright’s method of concrete block construction as seen in Wright’s Los Angeles homes.

It was during this trip to Phoenix that Wright met Dr. Alexander Chandler, who eventually commissioned Wright to design a large, luxury resort outside of Phoenix known as San-Marcos-in-the-Desert. The following year, Dr. Chandler, at Wright’s request, gave Wright a plot of land to build a camp on while working on the project. The camp, which Wright named Ocatillo, consisted of fifteen cabins, low to the ground, with roofs made of stretched canvas. Wright was so enchanted with the soft light that came through the canvas from above, and with the intimate desert experience, that Ocatillo became a precursor of Taliesin West to come. San-Marcos-in-the-Desert never came to fruition because of the Great Depression’s complications, but the intimate desert experience that Ocatillo provided never left Wright. Olgivanna Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s third and final wife, described the experience of Ocatillo in the desert as a romantic, primitive adventure.

Several more encounters with the Arizona desert in the early to mid 1930’s inspired the Wright’s to create a permanent home in Arizona. A nearly life ending bout with pneumonia in 1936 further highlighted the health benefits of Arizona’s warm desert climate as Wright was entering his 70’s. By this time, Wright had founded the Taliesin Fellowship (1932), and when land was purchased in 1937, the Wrights and their Fellowship began making an annual trek to Scottsdale.

For the first several years, each winter was spent digging and building on the land that would go from several canvas topped tent-like structures to a complex of interconnected buildings joined by terraces, courtyards, and the like. As with the Taliesin of Wisconsin, Taliesin West was an ongoing project that Wright delighted in altering and adding to over the years leading up to his death in 1959 at the age of 91.

Upon arrival at Taliesin West, visitors are immediately taken aback by this magical extension of the desert. The buildings appear to rise organically from the ground, and the integration of site, nature, and architecture is undeniable. The primary structural component of Taliesin West is comprised of what Frank Lloyd Wright called “desert masonry”, a collection of rocks and pebbles gathered from the site, set into a cast and held together with desert sand and local cement. These casts were used over and over again to set in place in the desert masonry and every wall in the complex is supported by this. The roofs are still made of stretched canvas, allowing a soft, delicate light to brighten the interiors. At the end of each winter, the Wrights and the Fellowship would clear out the rooms, store away the canvas, and leave Taliesin West looking like an abandoned camp site.

For many years, there were no windows, or glass rather, used at Taliesin West. Wright so enjoyed the desert elements blowing in and out of the cabins. This, however, annoyed Olgivanna, the woman of the house. She begged him to put glass in to keep out the sand, snakes, and rain, and Wright finally caved after Olgivanna told of a dream she had where Wright put in glass windows. She was, perhaps, the only one that had such an influence and authority over him.

The living spaces are small at Taliesin West, including the bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, etc., as was the case with most Wright interiors. It was the entertaining and social spaces that created the real drama. Frank Lloyd Wright felt that most of one’s time should be spent in these social spaces, e.g. the living room with its fire place, myriad of seating options, open views of the desert, and piano. Olgivanna’s bedroom initially opened up to a courtyard with no windows or doors, just open exposure to the elements. Wright’s bedroom of course provided a fireplace, a place for him to work, and a bed to sleep. A peculiar and very-Wright aspect of the bedroom is the bed itself. There are two single mattresses separated by a divider. If a Fellow came into Wright’s bedroom and saw him sleeping on the outer mattress closer to the fireplace and desk, that was his cue that it was okay to wake Wright. If, on the other hand, Wright was on the inner mattress between the divider and wall, he was not to be disturbed, even by Olgivanna.

Most of the space at Taliesin West is dedicated to entertainment and social life. There is a beautiful underground cabaret, with exquisite acoustics; a music auditorium, larger than any other enclosed space at Taliesin West; and of course the great room for entertaining, as Wright was so prone to host for elaborate parties.

If Taliesin West were to be summed up in a single word, “whimsical” would be appropriate. It appears as a collection of buildings rising from the desert that have always been there. Today, Taliesin West remains in the condition that Wright left it when he passed away, and the complex continues to serve as an architectural center. Frank Lloyd Wright’s school of architecture still exists and the students are taught in a similar manner as Wright would have done more than 50 years ago. Students are still given the option to build their own housing on site and are fully emerged in the Taliesin West lifestyle.


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