“Reflections on Visiting Taliesin West”


June 7, 2011 – (RealEstateRama) — One of the Southwest’s most distinctive and popular tourist destinations is Taliesin West, home of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright Archives, Western “camp” and permanent residence for Frank Lloyd Wright, wife Olgivanna Lloyd Wright and the “Taliesin Fellowship” since 1937.

A visit to Taliesin West today can be memorialized by participating in any one of a number of scheduled tours garnering 150,000 annual visitors which provide in-depth insights into the life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright and his devotees. Jason Silverman, former Fellowship student and professional architect, tour guide par excellence, taps his personal recollections, experiences and professional resources to inform the narrative, bringing to life the significance of this desert treasure.

Taliesin West boasts 360° expansive, scenic vistas. Arizona’s sense of place is palpable from the infinity view of the pool deck. It is not difficult to imagine how exotic and remote Wright’s camp originally was viewed since, in terms of the Valley of the Sun today; it’s still magnificently natural though aerially dotted by power lines and topographically surrounded by neutral-toned residential developments in the distance. During his life, Wright described this view as “a look over the rim of the world” and his reason for building his permanent residence here Wright purchased several hundred acres across the foothills of the McDowell Mountains when neighboring Scottsdale was truly a dale. Wright was 70 when he began this project. He named his estate “Taliesin West”. In Middle Welch, Taliesin means Shining Brow. The name’s significance was not only poetic. Wright maintained that building should be done across a mountain’s foothills, never on top. From the process of name selection alone, it is evident that Frank Lloyd Wright assigned cultural care and significance to each aspect of his land, its resources, materials, community and daily living.

Wright presaged environmental and sustainability concerns dominant and familiar in today’s society. Viewing the hearty, simple walls of stone selected, carried and filled in with desert sand and cement poured into recyclable forms whose height and shape are patterned throughout the property’s landscape, you realize that hard work, self reliance and ingenuity of offering tribute to Mother Nature abound here. Wright found the solution in the problem. He masterfully tapped his students’ resources and conversely, they discovered their own. The “goose egg” smaller stones fit between the large rocks and prevented the concrete from oozing over the face of larger, flat rocks. Wright’s “desert masonry” reveals multi-colored shapes and hues in walls “that seem to rise from the desert floor”.

Survival is the top-of-mind awareness when living in the natural desert whose winter nights literally are freezing or below, with reliable periods of rain/snow. Summer temperatures frequently climb into the 110°+ range. It’s a tough competition to fill limited student enrollment opportunities, yet tougher yet when students discover they have to design and arrange their own personal “tent” accommodations.

Perhaps this is one of the most singular educational experiences available to architectural apprentices today. To study with this Fellowship is to become fully engaged, not only academically, but also existentially and always within a sense of “community”. That community component is credited largely to the principles of Frank Lloyd Wright’s wife, Olgivanna. Montenegrin by birth, Olgivanna was influenced by the Greek-Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff; Gurdjieff emphasized attentiveness to conscious living through an extremely prescriptive protocol.

Living and working at Taliesin West involves individual and group responsibility for the many aspects of life together from the functional, social and cultural points of view. Touring the property, it is evident the aesthetics of entertainment, such as the Kiva building for formal Saturday night dinners; theater designed for acoustical enhancement; or auditorium for concerts and performances were complimented by strategically-placed outdoor minimal grassy areas for children’s play or varying tones of water by vertical and ground fountains and pools to suggest coolness.

Olgivanna’s preference for glass to dramatically enhance interconnectedness between outdoor and indoor areas was reluctantly embraced and subsequently enthusiastically relished by Wright in certain locales of the living quarters to show the desert in all its changing states as a spectacle “that could now be seen from within the buildings during colder winter weather”. The original use of canvas for overhead shelter was replaced by a type of plastic in subsequent years because the original “camp” became a multi-season residence. Canvas tent-like structures, that originally were supposed to be taken down when the Fellowship migrated to Wisconsin, were left in place and unable to weather the onslaught of the desert’s extreme climate. Wright loved redwood but discovered that wood’s intemperance for the desert. It was the closeness to nature and the actual evolution of his residence that permitted the experiments with materials and the learning of lessons. Wright told his apprentices: “Study nature love nature, stay close to nature; it will never fail you.”

Low ceilings, interconnection of indoor and outdoor environments, intelligent use of mathematical design principles, strategic use of color, surprising use of space to lead to, accompany, or divert..such are a sample of sensations to the Taliesin West visitor. A citrus garden colorfully hedges one corner of the estate. A tall, vertical sculptural stone monolith signifies entrance to the estate. Colorful shards of Chinese opera figures Wright spotted in the basement of Gump’s, San Francisco, have been carefully reassembled to become a leitmotif in student-built stone walls throughout the site. They seem to gleefully pop out of the concrete settings to announce, “Here we are!”, much as Ping, Pang and Pong intermittently entertain the audiences of Puccini’s “Turandot”.

Taliesin West is self described as a vibrant community of architects, students, artists, teachers and others dedicated to preserving Wright’s legacy and applying his visionary design principles to help resolve the challenges of the built environment in the 21st century.

To visit Taliesin West is to arouse your consciousness as well as to give deference to one of the leaders of this century who called his work “organic architecture”, “a philosophy espousing that buildings should be seamlessly integrated with their surroundings, inspired by nature, and fulfilling their role as a place for living and working”. Whether the visitor is a devotee of architecture or not, a visit to Taliesin West is a quintessential experience of American ingenuity, Arizona and an invitation to live more consciously and become more thoughtful in noticing the connection of man and nature. It’s time!

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Note to editors: For tours or further information, see. www.franklloydwright.org; ph. 480-860-2700

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