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.