Many people—himself included—believed that Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the best architects of the twentieth century, if not of any age.
History itself has confirmed that assessment. In 1991 the American Institute of Architects named Wright the greatest American architect of all time. The professional magazine Architectural Record included 12 Wright structures in its list of the one hundred most important buildings of the previous century. Twenty-five of Wright’s projects are National Historic Landmarks.
a pool in front of the garden room
With the exception of the Guggenheim, I knew of Wright’s work only from photographs of his legendary buildings: Falling Waters, the Robie House, and the Johnson Wax building, to name but a few. So when I happened to be in Scottsdale, Arizona, a few weeks ago, I took the opportunity to visit Taliesin West, the winter quarters of Wright’s school, to see for myself an important example of his work.
rocs from the surrounding desert were used to build the walls
The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture opened in Summer Green, Wisconsin, in 1932, with 23 student apprentices. The following year Wright and the apprentices headed to Arizona to escape the cold of the Wisconsin winters. In 1937 Wright purchased several hundred acres of desert in the Paradise Valley, 26 miles from Phoenix in the foothills of the McDowell Range. He paid $3.50 an acre—far less than what it cost him to build the 500-foot-deep well.
Wright and his student apprentices lived outdoors in tents while they set about building a series of structures to his specifications. Because Wright believed that architecture should be subordinate to nature, he favored using materials that could be found in the area—a far less expensive source than conventional building material supply houses. He had his apprentices drag tons of sun-burned local desert rocks to the site and stack them in wooden forms, which they filled with concrete. As a result, as he intended, the buildings blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape.
Wright always scorned traditional houses. “Boxes beside boxes or inside boxes, called rooms,” he said, “are a cellular sequestration that implies ancestors familiar with penal institutions.”
At Taliesin West one must pass through narrow passageways with low ceilings before entering the larger areas, which by contrast seem exceptionally spacious. Influenced by houses he had seen in Japan, Wright favored an open plan and the use of short walls or screens to allow the rooms to flow from one to the next. He seems to have preferred sloping walls, especially those at a 15-degree angle. Flat roofs mirror the horizontal lines of the surrounding desert, while long rows of casement windows with canvas shades allow natural light to enter the rooms throughout the day. the windows of the drafting complex
The furnishings—long banquettes and triangular tables and chairs also designed by Wright—are distinguished by their clean lines. Russet, ocher, and Cherokee red, the earth colors of the Southwest, are used for the upholstery as well as for many of the painted surfaces. Doors throughout are often the deep red of Tibetan robes.
The garden room
Quite different from the expansive public spaces are the Wrights’ private quarters. Small, rather cramped rooms, sparsely furnished, give onto an interior courtyard rather than the expansive desert. The furnishings seem singularly uncomfortable. Wright’s queen-sized bed has been divided down the center by a board some six feet high to create what in essence are two beds, one for sitting and reading and the other for sleeping. Neither seem very inviting, but perhaps Wright had no interest in comfort. His bathroom, however, which he had tiled in sheets of aluminum, is sensational.
The public spaces—dining hall, auditorium, theater, and drafting room—are still used by the school today. In the latter, however, the drawing tables have been replaced by computers.
One is struck throughout by how very contemporary Taliesin West is. It is hard to believe that the series of buildings were designed over 75 years ago at a time when features we take for granted today must have seemed revolutionary.