By Sarah Balcombe
As a “bomb cyclone” barrages New York and New England with some of the coldest temperatures on record, Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept of an Arizona winter retreat seems not just sensible but positively prophetic. And so it is. Reinforcing Wright’s architectural ingenuity and his continued relevance, nothing screams “shelter” more than his iconic Taliesin West.
Still functioning as an architecture school, with daily tours for visitors, this remarkable mid-century collection of modern structures sits lightly in the landscape. Wright bought this 600 acre plot in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1937, for $2000, with the profit from his Falling Water project, under his doctor’s recuperation advice to avoid Wisconsin winters, following a bout of pneumonia.
Unique in its concept of desert building, Taliesin West is essentially home-brewed-by-Wright. It is an an organic series of experimental structures that he and his apprentices designed and built in the hostile Arizona desert.
Surrounded by snakes, cacti and a distinct lack of water, the complex was deliberately situated in a region of petrogylyphs, ancient writing symbols by Southwest Native Americans. This petroglyph (above) has been positioned by the entrance to Taliesin West. Wright used its orthogonal spiral symbol as his motif for the estate.
Wright was fascinated by the land’s spiritual origins, as well as its water possibilities and eventually succeeded in locating an underground river 500ft below the site. This allows for the welcoming triangular pools and alledgedly helped to appease Wright’s fear of fire, following fire tragedies, at his original Talisein home in Wisconsin.
Evolving over a twenty year period with simple modern shelters subsequently added by students, Taliesin West demonstrates an innovative use of space and materials within the desert landscape, exuding a therapeutic and tranquil serenity.
Wright’s office and studio (above), modest sleeping quarters and a long, low living room (below), with built-in-sofas and custom-made chairs, all have controlled views out with carefully designed slotted openings, that were only reluctantly glazed five years after completion. With low overhangs and canvas roofs, the intention had been to keep these sheltered slots open, contributing to the tent-like relaxed feel of the place and its sense of genius loci.
Using local and natural materials, Wright invented a compound cement slurry to set the flat-edged natural boulders into the walls and floors (see above), making them easier to manoeuvre into position before setting. His environmentally responsive, green architecture also uses reflective aluminium surfaces in the bathrooms to reduce lighting requirements (below).
It also employs simple acoustic principles of plywood under the stage of the cabaret/ lecture theatre, complete with piano niche (see below) and utilizes pre-stressing, strengthening techniques for the store-room ceiling.
Frank Lloyd Wright had a separate sleeping and napping area (above) adjacent to his wife, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright. Her sleeping quarters, with writing bureau, are shown below.
These experiments in controlled views through level changes (below), is a technique later employed by modernist architects such as Sir Leslie Martin in his Royal Festival Hall, London and his Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal.
Similar aspects of Taliesin West’s design and construction were used by Wright in his subsequent projects. The same low stair configuration, prairie style overhangs, vast ceilings and angled openings (glazed in this case) can be seen in the Olfelt home in Minnesota. Currently on sale for $1.3m, it is being sold by the original owners, the couple who originally commissioned Wright to design their home (images below).
(Olfelt home, Minnesota images by Coldwell Banker)
Whilst brick was used instead of desert boulders, the angled roof and canopies, Wright’s characteristic Cherokee Red floors and stone fireplaces echo those at Taliesin West. They also give this midwest property its mid-century flair. As one of Wright’s final works, it is interesting to see how some of his desert experiments are adapted and applied here, once again demonstrating his design genius.
All original furniture is included. For the full effect, just add snow.