“Taliesen West: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Desert Dream,” Arizona Highroads

by Lori DeBoer

Eleven of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings are listed by The Architectural Record as among the top 100 significant in the world, but Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, was the architect’s favorite. During his tenure at his school and winter headquarters, the controversial architect achieved the recognition he had long pursued and completed one-third of his designs.

From 1927, when he first visited the Phoenix area to consult on the Arizona Biltmore, to his death in 1959 at the age of 91, the charm of the Sonoran desert lured Wright from Taliesin in Wisconsin every winter. In the late 1930s, he built his architectural school.

Taliesin West, now a National Historic Landmark, nestles on 600 acres of desert land. A stroll around the grounds, led by informed tour guides – some of them former Wright apprentices – offers insight into Wright’s architectural genius. The school trains about 35 students each year and the on-site archives of Wright’s drawing and writings draw researchers from around the world.  Filmmaker Ken Burns spent two years there researching Wright for a PBS documentary that aired last year.  New work still eminates from the center; the Taliesin Architects have a number of commissions in the States and abroad. 

The handful of buildings that comprise Taliesin West are hidden from view from the street, at the end of a serpentine drive. They recline below the mountains, their profile punctuated by architectural features that harmonize with the rocks and plants of the desert. “The whole thesis of his work is that his buildings belong to the landscape,” said Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, a one-time Wright apprentice and currently the Taliesin West archivist. “When you walk through Taliesin West, the first thing you see is the mountains.”

Wright’s philosophy of organic design found its spiritual home in Arizona. He believed the cactus epitomized good design. The cholla, with its latticed structure, influenced the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin.  In a 1940 article for Arizona Highways, he wrote: “The Arizona desert is no place for the hard box-walls of the houses of the Middle West and East. Here all is sculptured by wind and water, patterned in color and texture.”

The desert also supplied building materials. Wright worked side-by-side with his apprentices in the backbreaking work of gathering rocks and sand from washes to create his unique “desert masonry.” Hard, flat-sided rocks found in the area, called Taliesin quartzite, were unsuitable for cutting, but he used them to create a mosaic surface on the thick, concrete walls throughout the site.

Hands-on work was an integral part of Wright’s educational philosophy, and his students still learn by doing.  Many continue the tradition of constructing their own desert digs in which they live while studying at the school.

Students enjoyed the fruits of their labor by socializing with important guests, which Wright believed was good training for the architecture business. One center of social activity was the living room, dubbed “The Garden Room,” whose 56-foot-long space is made even more dramatic by its sloping, translucent roof and spine of windows.

Redwood timbers crown the buildings and canvas roofs allow sunlight to diffuse through the rooms. His rooms are filled with furniture that he designed. The entrances to his buildings are hidden and mysterious; entryways to rooms are low, opening suddenly into spaciousness and light.

Other points of interest on the Taliesin West grounds include the Caberet Cinima, the Music Pavilion, the Seminar Theater and Wright’s private office. One of Wright’s works, the historic Sun Cottage, consists of three, large circular rooms framed by glass walls, clustered around a breezeway. Its innovative design was rejected by nine clients before being claimed by Brooks Pfeiffer, but the thoroughly modern living space suits both dweller and desert landscape perfectly.

Taliesin West was a work in progress while Wright lived, because the master was forever improving on his designs. Today, his desert camp provides a glimpse into the creative life of a man whose vision is still ahead of its time.

Published in Arizona Highroads, Phoenix, AZ, March/April 2000, pp 28-29.