Wisconsin is not a nice place to be in the wintertime. Scottsdale, Arizona, is. That simple premise accounts for Taliesin West. Several hearty souls do live in Wisconsin during the winter, I just wouldn't recommend it...any more than I'd suggest Scottsdale in the summer. Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin Fellowship may be the only educational institution of any kind with seasonal campuses. Ever since the early 1930s, following his work on the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, the Wright family had packed up the car in October and trekked the thousand miles or so from Spring Green, Wisconsin to the northeast suburb of Phoenix. It was a time when Scottsdale had a greater population of rattlesnakes and scorpions than humans. The trip to the desert Southwest took two weeks.
Taliesin West began in a tent. Wright purchased the land in 1937 for $3.50 per acre. He bought 800 acres ($2,800) no small investment during the 1930s especially inasmuch as it was all bone dry rock, sand and cactus with the added bonus of the aforementioned native population. The first year, as he and his apprentices constructed, largely from native materials (rocks and sand come cheap in the desert), the first, crude, core components to support their six-month habitation, their domestic architecture consisted mostly of poles and canvas. For several years afterwards the roof between the heavy wood beams of the "work room" (drafting studio) continued to be canvas until the desert heat caused it to deteriorate to such a degree it had to be replaced with plastic. For decades afterwards, Taliesin West continued to grow (or perhaps sprawl). Most of the area remained largely untouched. The campus eventually came to occupy less than ten acres. Today, a deluxe tour of Taliesin West (three hours, $52. per person) includes an optional hike through the desert along the many paths worn by Wright's nature-loving apprentices (and their families).
Although there's a surprising amount of wood employed in the structural elements and in various details, the major masses have been constructed using wooden forms, filled first with boulders, then lined with colorful flat stones facing outward. Poured concrete was then used to fill in any remaining voids. The heavy reliance upon stone reduces the amount of concrete needed and thus the cost of construction. Although early photos and motion pictures from the 1950s indicate the predominant color scheme was orange, tan, and gray, today there is also a great deal of irrigated green, even two swimming pools, one of which, is triangular and mostly ornamental. In all the Southwest, even today, water is a precious commodity. In the early days of Taliesin it was especially precious, to the tune of ten-thousand 1937 dollars for a well. Needless to say, the swimming pools had to wait a few years.
Wright had always been one to work out of his home, at least after his kids were grown. Taliesin West was named for Taliesin back in Wisconsin, which had twice burned to the ground, the second time in 1914 killing Wright's mistress and her two children. Each time, Taliesin was rebuilt employing Wright's interpretation of the International style influences he'd picked up in touring Europe between wives during the early 1920s. It was basically a wood frame model for what Wright later did in glass, stone, and concrete in the Arizona desert, minus his penchant for cantilevered balconies. Taliesin West is very earthbound (and largely fireproof). The pool in the front yard was as much for fire suppression as for swimming. The lines of Wright's home/office/design studio echo the flatness of the desert environment in much the same way as his Fallingwater, was influenced by the Bear Run waterfall it overhangs.
Inside Taliesin West, the desert still makes its presence felt, if not directly via visual vistas, then through the textural presence and masculinity of the same concrete and masonry interspersed with massive wood structural components as seen outside. Though several steps beyond camping out in a tent, the mingling of natural nature and human nature within the mind is never more than just below the highly refined simplicity of Wright's architectural
Since the death of Frank Lloyd Wright in 1959 at the age of 91, Taliesin West has evolved into a tourist attraction as well as an architectural school with shades of desert commune. Apprentices still come from around the world to study under former Wright apprentices now some two generations removed from the man himself. The dessert showplace is much prettier now, looking very much at home in the 21st century, having shed its dry, brown, desert rawness in favor of pretty cactus flowers, elegant landscaping, and carefully manicured lawns. The ample parking lot is neatly paved and lined, the gift shop well stocked, the apprentice guides well-versed in everything there is to know about Wright, Taliesin (both of them) and the rules and regulations of architecture according to their long dead idol.
Ready to stay in a real Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home? Check out this breathtaking vacation rental on Hawaii’s Big Island:
About the Author
Jim Lane is an artist, writer, and author. Find out more on his blog Art Now and Then.