By Richard White, April 9, 2014
Frank Lloyd Wright once referred to himself as the “world’s greatest architect.” While that might be a bit of an exaggeration, after our recent tour of Taliesin West, Wright's winter home in Phoenix, I am more impressed than ever with his timeless design and ability to integrate his structures with nature.
Frank Lloyd Wright 101
Wright was born in 1867 and died, at the age of 91, in 1959. He dropped out of university without completing a degree and decided to move to Chicago in 1887. Chicago was booming in the late 1880s, as the city was rebuilding after the devastating fire of 1871. He first worked as a draftsman with the Joseph Lyman Silsbee architectural firm, later moving to the firm Adler & Sullivan where Louis Sullivan became his mentor. He first came to Phoenix in 1927 to be an advisor on the Biltmore Hotel.
After the stock market crash of 1929, architectural projects dried up so he established an architectural school in 1932, in Spring Green Wisconsin, to help keep his architectural practice alive.
In 1937, he returned to Phoenix with his wife, two children and 22 apprentices to create a winter campus for his architecture school in the desert. He purchased 160 acres of wilderness with no access road, no electricity and no water as his site to realize his vision of creating a place where architecture and nature could co-exist.
He called it Taliesin, which means “shining brow” in reference to fact the site chosen was at the brow of the mountain. As well, the site is on the west facing mountain slope that shimmers in the winter sun.
He, his family and the apprentices lived in shepherd tents on the land while they built roads, wells and started construction of the school.
The walls of the buildings are made from local rock mixed with cement on site making the buildings look like they grew out of the ground. This concept is further enhanced by the fact that there is no need for a foundation in the desert so the buildings literally sit on the land.
Wright's design was inspire by the shepherd tent i.e. canvas roofs, and canvas flaps to cover windows instead of using glass. The design maximized the use of the winter sun by positioning the buildings, rooflines and materials to minimize the need for lighting, heating and cooling. Wright was utilizing LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environment Design) principles 100 years ahead of their widespread adoption by the development industry.
Over the ensuing years, Wright acquired over 500 acres, thus ensuring the campus would maintain its sense of wilderness. Today, Taliesin West is the winter campus for an accredited university with just 20+ students enrolled in either a Master of Architecture program or a 3-month Immersion Program. An interesting side note, even today, students spend live in huts and tents in the wilderness on campus.
Wright believed in an integrated design approach that linked exterior, interior and landscape design. And in many cases, he chose the furniture and the art for his clients' homes as well. We were told he loved to experiment with new materials. For example, when plywood came out, he quickly used it to create chairs.
Believing in hands-on teaching, students were involved in the design, construction and over the years, also renovation of the Taliesin West campus buildings' exteriors, interiors and landscaping.
Wright was an inventor who, to his own detriment, didn’t patent any of his ideas (Note: this is what our tour guide told us, we have since been informed by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation that he did indeed patent some of his designs). He hated the light bulb so he hid them in the roof beams like pot lights. In his cabaret room, he didn’t want wall or overhead lighting so he created floor and aisle lights which today are used in all theatres and airplanes.
After a quick history lesson and tour of Wright’s business office, we finally got to look at the elegant, elongated single-story house. There is a tranquility and beauty not only its design but in the gardens, lawn and swimming pool (now just decorative) and how it all fits naturally with the mountains and the valley.
We enter the house through a small door that is tucked away out of sight – Wright was not a big fan of grand entrances. We find ourselves in the living room (Wright referred to it as his garden room). Given the abundant windows, you definitely feel like you are outside. The unique canvas roof allows for a soft filtered light to permeate the room. The room is filled with about a dozen of his plywood framed chairs, with cushioned bench seating on the perimeter. Though the room could easily accommodate 50+ people, it has a very intimate.
Unlike other house tours, we were encouraged to sit in the chairs. This was an experience as the chair's seat is so low your knees are above your waist. Wright thought this was the healthiest way to sit.
Next, we visited the two sitting rooms. Wright’s wife’s sitting room was furnished with a small bed and desk overlooking the garden. Next to it was Wright's room with two beds (one for napping in the afternoon), a large desk, fireplace and also a great view of the garden. He even had his own small, but functional and futuristic (the walls were made of redwood wrapped in aluminum) looking bathroom.
Then it was off to the movie room which could also be used for lectures and presentations. He had a state-of-the-art projector installed as he loved movies. Another side note; His granddaughter was actress Anne Baxter who was able to get him uncut versions of Hollywood movies, some could be as long as 12 hours.
We were then lead out to the north side of the campus and over to the Heloise Crista outdoor sculpture plaza. Crista first came to Taliesin West to study philosophy and architecture in 1949. However, she spent most of her time involved in the Taliesin West Music and Dance Festival. It wasn’t until 1978 that she decided to pursue becoming a sculptor. She is now exhibits her work around the world. LIke her, many other former students have homes at Taliesin West - it has become a sacred place for them.
The final tour stop was at the cabaret, an intimate 100-seat performance space that has near perfect acoustics despite the walls being made of rock. Wright was well schooled on principles of acoustic designing by his mentor Sullivan.
Our 90-minute tour was engaging, educational and entertaining - all of the things we look for in a tour. Our tour guide didn’t use many technical terms, but focused more on theman, the history of the campus and the architecture. If you are in Phoenix and are at all interested in design, we highly recommend the Taliesin West tour.