“Living in the Desert is a spiritual cathartic a great many people need. I am one of them.” (Frank Lloyd Wright, 1949)
Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s “desert camp,” has been on my must-see list ever since I fell in reluctant, unexpected love with his Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob in Pennsylvania (visit them, if you haven’t yet). So, naturally, when work brought me to Scottsdale, I was on my way to Taliesin at the first opportunity I could manage: the last 2-hour guided tour of the day on a Wednesday.
My plan almost fell through: On my way there, it began to hail and snow, all at once. Apparently, this hasn’t happened in decades (I am so lucky). Thankfully, the skies closed up long enough for the show to go on. Most of the tour is outside, meandering from one space to the next — Taliesin West is a small complex of architectural experiments — so visits do get cancelled in [the unlikely event of] bad weather.
Heavy skies and stunned silence welcomed me to the grounds:
When FLW came here to claim this raw, dry land, he was seventy. His wife, Olgivanna, remembered that day:
“In 1937 we heard of land to the northeast — beyond the barely existent town of Scottsdale. Frank and I drove out there to explore the site, but when we arrived at the point where the flat sandy desert gives way to the rising elevation towards the mountains there is a dramatic change of growth and the desert is strewn with rocks, and gutted by deep dry washes. We had to stop the car and go on by foot. It was very wild, there were no trails, our feet full of cactus, and we were always stopping every few minutes. The desert at first appeared to me too bare, … after coming from Wisconsin. But then it had a magnetic power — I absolutely believe in — it has a magnetic power that overcomes you, and it overcame Frank. ‘Oh,” he said, ‘we have to build here, this is pure abstraction wherever you look.”’
Like its Wisconsin older brother, Taliesin West clutches onto the brow of the hill, with sweeping views of the valley and the mountains (FLW was of the opinion that, if you build on top of a hill, the hill is lost, so he insisted on building into it instead). “Taliesin” means “a shining brow” in Welsh, a nod to the ancestry of FLW’s mother. In late afternoon, the light here is, indeed, remarkable: Everything around seems to glow. In Oglivanna’s words:
“At the base of the majestic McDowell Mountain, this site commanded a view of the entire Valley of the Sun — from Four Peaks and the Superstition Mountains in the east to the mountains in the west. Mesa, Tempe, Scottsdale, Phoenix, Paradise Valley all lay before us, although so remote and little developed at the time that we could see no buildings. In fact this vast, beautiful desert was wholly untouched by buildings with the exception of a few widely-spaced ranches blow. Prominent in our view was the distinctive form of Camelback Mountain.”
The scenery is no longer rural, the horizon now pierced by power lines, so hated by FLW (the complex was lit with kerosene lamps into the 1950s). Still, by all accounts, sunsets at Taliesin West are magnificent. Two-hour sunset tours are offered on Fridays, my new must-see for the next visit. I bet the entire site transforms in the evenings, the buildings morphing into statues, lit from within. “I believe a house is more a home by being a work of art,” FLW argued. With their multiple angles, echos of the mountains around, irregular doors and windows, and rough, rugged textures, the buildings do seem at once a part of the landscape and a fanciful presence onto it.
“I was struck by the beauty of the desert… by the stark geometry of the mountains, the entire region was an inspiration in strong contrast to the lush, pastoral landscape of my native Wisconsin. And out of that experience, a revelation is what I guess you might call it, came the design for these buildings. The design sprang out of itself, with no precedent and nothing following it,” FLW wrote in his autobiography.
Much of the complex rose up between 1938 and 1940, eked from the desert with picks and shovels by FLW’s apprentices, the Taliesin Fellowship (“All we did the first year was dig!” remembered one of them, Cornelia Brierly). With funds tight, the materials were as cheap as possible, and local: boulders and sand from the mountainside rose up as massive walls, “desert masonry rubble walls,” Wright called them, framed with redwood beams and painted cement.
Over these impenetrable walls were roofs of canvas. Marya Lilien, another of FLW’s apprentices remembered the effect vividly: “All the roofs were canvas, the doors and enclosures — other than stone — were canvas flaps. It was dramatic and beautiful, this great architectural tent.” Or a ship, with sails raised. Our guide said some saw the Taliesin complex, with its terraces and sunken gardens, as an abstract ship, gliding over the coral reefs of cacti and desert rock.
As the school continued, though, Taliesin West soon morphed from a rustic winter escape into the Fellowship’s home and an architects’ laboratory from October to May. In late 1940s, glass replaced most of the canvas. The buildings became more comfortable, better protected from the elements, yet these remained shelters intended for a typical Arizona day: After the 20-minute snowfall, many of the roofs were leaking.
Because of its multiple angles and varying ceiling heights, the complex feels like several buildings standing together, each with its distinct character and function (the drafting room, the Wrights’ and the apprentices’ living quarters, the canteen, the music pavilion). In reality, though, this is one big building, connected by covered walkways, secret gardens, and wide-open terraces.
As with Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, I was surprised by the experience of being inside FLW’s spaces, with their low ceilings and open-floor designs (no photography is permitted indoors). I expected an oppressive quality, but instead I felt at ease–and, through the views all around me, connected to the landscape outside wherever I went. Much of the furniture is replicas, so make sure to sink into the chairs, the wing chairs in the Living Room, especially: origami-shaped, they are unexpectedly comfortable, and each seat comes with its own mountain view.
My favorite space, I think, was one of the private bedrooms, used by the Wrights, with its screen doors opening up onto a garden with hollyhocks and a round moon gate. “Best architecture,” Wright believed, “is when there is no difference between indoors and outdoors.” And the bedroom is a beautiful example of this principle, its faded Chinese screen a witness to years of this fluid existence.
Outside, I loved the terraces and courtyards, each accented with water features, Chinese ceramics (theater scenes and dragons that FLW collected) and sculptures, many of them by Heloise Crista, who joined the Fellowship in 1949. Crista’s metal sculptures are powerful, solid and weightless at once. Some are available for sale at the Taliesin store, and I wish I had more time to explore them.
The tour concludes in the Cabaret Theatre, a space intended for intimate performances and films. Acoustics here is something to experience — and you do, a little, as the guide strikes several chords on a piano built into the wall. “Beethoven is my favorite architect,” Wright used to say. Musical evenings were treasured memories for the Fellowship.
As the tour winds down, you hear more about FLW, a man I found myself liking with his “honest arrogance over false humility,” the dashing top hat (he bought it at “an American store” in Paris where he asked for a cowboy hat), and over 700 buildings, many of his masterpieces, designed after the age of 65. The Fellowship is still active today as the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, with 14 students who continue to divide their time between Wisconsin and Arizona, and 4 full-time and 20 part-time instructors.
Outside, cold rain began, and I had to hurry to a work dinner, my wintry escape to Taliesin West a remarkable first acquaintance.
- An Autumn Wonderland: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob, and Ohiopyle State Park
- A Day in That “Astonishing Chicago” – an architects’ playground, with FLW’s hand apparent throughout
- Other posts about the American Southwest