• Taliesin West, a jewel in the desert

    Taliesin West, a jewel in the desert

  • Could you build a shelter in the middle of the desert?

    Could you build a shelter in the middle of the desert?

  • Taliesin West art

    Taliesin West art

In 1937, when architect Frank Lloyd Wright bought 600 acres of cheap land next to Scottsdale’s McDowell Mountains, he was acting on his doctor’s advice.

Wright, already 70 years old and low on funds despite his worldwide fame, needed to escape the pneumonia-inducing winters of his native Wisconsin.

Inviting his new wife and two dozen apprentices to join him, he established a makeshift camp in the desert and, over the ensuing winters, they built the complex he named Taliesin West after the original Taliesin — his home near Spring Green, Wis.

‘A look over the rim of the world’

Thirteen miles from town, past the end of Cactus Road and even farther from pavement, Taliesin West was not exactly glamorous.

There was no electricity and no water. The closest telephone was on the corner of Scottsdale Road and a dirt track called Shea Boulevard. Wright described the site as “a look over the rim of the world.”

But the place became a laboratory where he could test his vision of “organic architecture,” in which every part of a building was related both to the whole and to the surrounding environment.

The main residence, with stone walls rising from the desert floor, was arranged to frame views of the nearby mountains. Rooms flowed into courtyards and courtyards opened into other rooms, illustrating another of Wright’s principles: that inside and outside are not separate things.

As part of their education, the apprentices built Taliesin West by hand, hauling rocks, mixing concrete, nailing beams and rigging a canvas roof over the drafting studio — where they also helped Wright churn out drawings for such iconic designs as the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Price Tower in Oklahoma, Monona Terrace Convention Center in Wisconsin and ASU Gammage Auditorium in Tempe.

Wright, who was born June 8, 1867, found new energy in Arizona, and the last 20 years of his life were among his most productive. By day he worked, and by night he entertained clients, artists, musicians and celebrity visitors in his rustic desert compound.

By the time he died in Phoenix in 1959 at age 91, Wright had designed more than 1,100 works of architecture, of which 532 were eventually completed — including houses, hotels, office buildings, museums, churches and schools. Wright also created furniture, sculptures, stained-glass windows and other decor, producing a massive and varied body of work from Wisconsin to Japan.

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Renewing commitment to legacy

After Wright’s death, management of his estate — including both Taliesins and the architectural school — was transferred to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, based at Taliesin West. The foundation still offers daily public tours of both sites and sells books, jewelry and home goods based on Wright’s designs.

And now, with the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birthday approaching, the foundation is renewing its commitment to his legacy, according to president and CEO Stuart Graff.

The foundation’s primary mission is to preserve the Taliesin sites. However, since he joined the foundation 15 months ago, Graff and the advisory board have developed what he describes as “a different vision” of how they should pursue that mission.

The new approach, he explained, was partly inspired by the intimate understanding of Taliesin West he’d gained by living there during the first three months of his job.

“I’d been studying Wright’s work for 45 years, but here I got to sit in his chair at 6 a.m. and watch the sunrise,” Graff remembered. “And by doing that, I began to really grasp his genius, like how he’d framed the views and angled things so you would see exactly what he wanted you to see.”

Graff and the board members also talked to Wright’s former apprentices — now in their 70s, 80s and 90s — trying to understand Wright’s goals for Taliesin and Taliesin West.

Eventually, members of the group realized they hadn’t been treating the house the way Wright had wanted.

The problem, said Jeff Goodman, the foundation’s marketing director, was that they’d been regarding it as “a house museum ” — an artifact frozen in time. In fact, Wright and the apprentices made many changes to Taliesin West after it was built, continually improving and adapting it.

“Wright knew when he built this place that he wanted it to be a living laboratory, not a fixed monument,” Graff explained. “But how do you take a site that’s listed on the National Historic Register and use it as a living laboratory?”

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Preserving and advancing

With the 80-year-old Taliesin West currently in need of many repairs, Graff said the trick has been to preserve Wright’s underlying design goals, but use advanced technology and methods to accomplish those goals.

Although the concept sounds lofty, the work is not. One major project is replacing leaky water pipes installed underneath the concrete flooring. Rather than bring in jackhammers and hope to patch the concrete afterward, the preservation staff is working with a company that specializes in horizontal drilling. Together, they hope to devise a new approach to renovating plumbing in historic properties without damaging the foundations.

Similar creativity is at work in the drafting studio, where the canvas roof was long ago replaced with acrylic panels, which are now themselves in need of replacement. There, staff members are experimenting with architectural fabrics that might offer a durable solution, while restoring Wright’s original design.

Graff sees these projects not as mundane maintenance, but as exciting opportunities to once again make Taliesin West a laboratory for materials and techniques that could be applied elsewhere.

“We must preserve these buildings so that people get the experience,” he acknowledged, “but we view the buildings as a means, not as an end.”

That idea is captured in the foundation’s new slogan: “Advancing the way we build and live,” which Graff said describes how relevant Wright’s work continues to be today.

REVEALED:  10 Taliesin West treasures hidden in plain sight


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Pushing innovation 

Vern Swaback, a Scottsdale-based architect, came to Taliesin West in 1957 to study under Wright. Sixty years later, Swaback still marvels at his mentor’s enduring influence on American life.

“It’s unimaginable to me that there could ever be another person like that,” he said. “To compare him to anybody would be to already miss the point.”

Swaback noted that Wright’s innovations have become ubiquitous throughout contemporary architecture: from the use of concrete bricks in modernist buildings, to the vogue for “seamless” indoor/outdoor spaces, to the open floor plans that rule design magazines.

He also credits Wright with being among the first major architects to advocate sustainable design principles, such as using overhanging eaves to shelter a house from morning and evening sun, incorporating passive ventilation and building with stone from the construction site.

Wright had, Swaback explained, a reverence for simple materials used in artful ways.

“He would hold up a brick,” the former apprentice remembered, “and he’d say: ‘A brick is just a brick, but, oh, what you can do with a brick.’ “

Graff agreed that Wright’s influence is hard to overstate, especially in the Southwest, where many former apprentices like Swaback still work, and where Midcentury Modern design — which borrowed heavily from Wright’s work — remains popular.

“If you look around,” he said, “the impact on the visual landscape of almost the entire Southwest comes from Frank Lloyd Wright.”

READ:  Preserving Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West

A resource for the community

Wright’s impact, of course, extends far beyond the Southwest.

In 1991, the American Institute of Architects named him “the greatest American architect of all time,” and, of the more than 100,000 people who visit Taliesin West every year, most come from out of town.

However, Goodman and Graff want to find ways to make the famed site more relevant to the local community.

“This place is a really big deal,” Goodman said. “It’s our Monticello! But it’s also so close that it’s easy to take it for granted.”

Seeking reasons for Valley residents to come to Taliesin West — and to come back, the foundation has recently hosted performances by Southwest Shakespeare, Childsplay and the Phoenix Boys’ Choir, and hopes that future collaborations with other local groups will help re-establish the site as a resource for the community.

Another lure is Taliesin West’s educational program, which has been revised to include a field-trip curriculum and materials for grade-school students and new summer camps that offer courses ranging from photography to urban planning.

Meanwhile, the graduate program in architecture that Wright first developed in 1932 has also been restructured this year.

Operated for decades by the foundation as the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, the school has recently been reorganized as a separate organization known as the School of Architecture at Taliesin and will continue to teach aspiring architects at Taliesin and Taliesin West, in keeping with Wright’s vision.

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150th birthday celebration

If anyone still needs a reason to visit Taliesin West, Goodman says Wright’s 150th birthday on June 8 should be a great motivator.

On that day, the old desert camp will be offering public tours for $1.50 — including a birthday cupcake for each visitor. A gala celebration and an exhibit at the Arizona Heritage Museum in Tempe are planned for fall.

In fact, so many places across the country are hosting special events celebrating Frank Lloyd Wright’s birthday — from the Guggenheim to MoMA to Fallingwater — that the Foundation created a central website to help architecture buffs find them all at www.FLW150.org.

But here in the Valley, Taliesin West is ready for a visit whenever you are. And these days the roads are even paved.

Happy birthday, Frank Lloyd Wright

In celebration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th birthday, Taliesin West will offer public tours for $1.50 on June 8, including a free birthday cupcake for each visitor. Details: www.franklloydwright.org.

For related events across Arizona and the U.S., visit: www.FLW150.org.

Other buildings around Phoenix with ties to Wright include:

  • David Wright House in Phoenix’s Arcadia neighborhood; see www.davidwrighthouse.org for information about public tours. 
  • Harold Price Sr. House in Paradise Valley is open by appointment: www.pricehousefoundation.org.
  • First Christian Church, 6750 N. Seventh Ave., Phoenix, is open by appointment: www.fccphx.com.
  • ASU Gammage Auditorium, 1200 S. Forest Ave., Tempe. Public tours Mondays during school year: www.asugammage.com
  • Arizona Biltmore (Wright consulted on design), 2400 E. Missouri Ave., Phoenix. Public tours available: www.arizonabiltmore.com


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