At age 68—a time when most men are looking toward retirement—the legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright began the most distinguished and creative phase of his long career. He had developed a powerful love affair with the arid landscape of Arizona. In 1937 on a plot of the Sonoran desert at the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale, he and his apprentices scooped up desert rubble stone to build his winter home and architectural school, Taliesin West. Famous for integrating indoor and outdoor spaces, Wright described the remarkable set of low buildings as “…the surrounding landscape, rearranged and propped up to make shelters.”
The site is on a broad mesa bristling with prickly barrel and saguaro cactus, staghorn and jumping cholla, bursage, mesquite, palo verde and ironwood. The colors and textures of the compound that he and his students built harmonize with the stark desert terrain.
When he bought the first parcel of land that eventually grew to 600 acres, the audacious legend in the world of architecture wired his fellowship of students in Wisconsin to caravan to Arizona. His message read: bring shovels, rakes, hoes, hose, drafting boards, tools, wheelbarrow, concrete mixer, a small electrical plant, wire, melodeon, oil stoves for cooking and heating, water heater, viola, cello, and rugs not in use. No matter that he was building a camp in rugged desert conditions, Wright insisted on music as a component of his lifestyle.
Emphasis on Nature
When the students arrived, he set up drafting tables in khaki-colored sand, drawing sketches and designs on brown butcher paper to reduce the glare from Arizona’s brilliant winter sun. Characteristic of the famed architect’s reverence for nature, which he always spelled with a capital N, he believed that rattlesnakes slithering under his feet and flash floods that tumbled off the McDowell mountainsides were to be respected as he designed and supervised the building of his compound. He looked at the vast openness as a storehouse of natural shapes, textures and colors to incorporate into the low-lying buildings, many of which were open on one side to natural elements.
With nothing but picks and shovels to dig the foundations for the compound dwellings, Wright’s apprentices discovered below the surface sand a layer of caliche, soil described as nature’s cement. Wright figured the buildings could withstand time on the hardened surface without foundations. The entire compound, now over seven decades old, rests on bare ground.
He thought of Taliesin West as a winter camp, as well as his architectural laboratory. Originally, the dwellings had white canvas roofs and canvas flaps instead of glass windows. Wright incorporated high sloping roofs, translucent ceilings, and large, open doors and windows, creating living space that embraced the surrounding landscape. Every winter, he directed his apprentices to modify buildings and make additions. Yet, never did he violate his fundamental premise of building in perfect tune with the spirit and form of the surrounding desert land.
His “boys,” as the apprentices were called, labored in every aspect of living at Taliesin West from gardening to cooking to patching leaky roofs. The famed architect offered no formal teaching program, but he willingly passed on his boundless knowledge. The students learned by watching, absorbing, and transforming their mentor’s sketches into working drawings. Yet, come Sunday night, they were expected to appear in black tie for films, lectures and concerts. Wright’s love of music lives on in the Cabaret Theater and Music Pavilion on the compound premises.
The Arizona desert held a magnetic power over the flamboyant, and often impudent, Wright. The desert brought more reflection to his creativity and inspired some of his greatest work. He once stated: “There is a quiet repose about the atmosphere and a freshness in the air. Never have I breathed or lived such boundless purity of space.”
Until his death in 1959, Wright lived, worked and taught his students at his winter residence. Many of his most famous buildings were designed in the drafting room at Taliesin West, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and Grady Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Today, Taliesin West is the main campus of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. A National Historic Landmark since 1982, the compound welcomes 125,000 visitors annually. More than a museum, the complex serves students and architects working together to maintain the acclaimed master’s vision of desert architecture. Since Wright constantly improved the buildings and architecture on the compound’s grounds, he did not leave a completed version for a historic preservation reference. Still, changes over the years with new materials, interior rearrangements, and several posthumous structures respectively honor the architect’s genius for grasping the mood of the land and blending it harmoniously with the buildings.
Public tours led by guides knowledgeable about Wright’s architecture, life and philosophies offer glimpses into Frank Lloyd Wright’s greatest masterpieces. The one-hour Panorama Tour visits the Cabaret Theater, Music Pavilion, Seminar Theater, and Wright’s private office—all linked by terraces, gardens, shallow pools and walkways. Experienced escorts explain how the site relates to the desert. They provide a general overview of Wright’s theories of design, the history of the site, and the activities of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation’s key educational programs and its residential community, which includes the Taliesin Fellowship.
The 90-minute Insights Tour includes all the elements of the Panorama Tour and adds the newly restored living quarters and the Taliesin West living room, fondly called the “Garden Room” by Wright. Famous guests once gathered socially with Wright in this open room that links to the garden and bedroom wing by expansive windows. On the tour, visitors sit in Wright-designed furniture—functional, but lacking luxury. No reservations are required on the Insights and Panorama tours.
A Behind the Scenes Tour features mid-morning tea in the Taliesin Fellowship dining room and a walk to the historic Sun Cottage. A guided Desert Walk explores trails on the site. The Desert Shelter Tour visits the desert dwellings, self-designed and built by the architecture students. The Night Lights on the Desert Tour views Taliesin West in the twilight. Reservations are suggested, but not required on these tours.
For additional information and ticket prices visit www.franklloydwright.org or phone (480) 860-2700, ext. 494 or 495.
Arline Chandler is a writer who lives in Heber Springs, Arkansas.