Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West | Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West is an architectural complex open to visitors, designed by great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, located on the outskirts of Scottsdale, Arizona.
A National Historic Landmark since 1982, the complex currently accommodates the School of Architecture at Taliesin and the headquarters of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
Wright started designing and building the first nucleus of Taliesin West in 1937 as his winter home and studio, as well as the winter seat of the residential school of architecture, the Taliesin Fellowship, which he had founded five years before.
The complex was built amid a 600-acre site in the foothills of McDowell Peak in the Sonoran Desert with the intent to complement Wright’s summer estate in Spring Green, Wisconsin (which he had named Taliesin, from a Welsh word meaning “shining brow”).
Wright was particularly fascinated by the site position, located on top of a mesa overlooking the Paradise Valley northeast of Scottsdale, by the beautiful natural scenery around it, and by its Native American cultural heritage.
At the time, the area was largely undeveloped and sparsely populated; the city of Scottsdale, which now has a population of over two hundred thousand, was still a small village with a few hundred inhabitants.
“Just imagine what it would be like on top of the world looking over the universe at sunrise or sunset with a clear sky in between. (…) Well, that was our place on the mesa and our buildings had to fit in.” Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1943), p. 453.
The concept and architectural design of Taliesin West, and all Taliesins, at large, were deeply rooted in Wright’s fascination for the idea of a self-sufficient community living and working in union with nature – such as those of American pioneers, and Native Americans. In that sense, the then-remote Taliesin West was situated even better than the original Taliesin “east” in Wisconsin.
In Taliesin West, the first constructions (The “Historical Core” as it is called today, built between 1938 and 1941), were Wright’s office, the Drafting Studio, the kitchen and original dining room, the living quarters of the architect, and his family, the “Garden Room”, the “Kiva” theater (subsequently converted into a library), the rooms for Wright’s assistants, a small bell tower, and a workshop.
Furthermore, a timber frame temporary structure, called the Sun Trap, was built in 1937 to accommodate the Wright family until the completion of their living quarters three years later.
In the following decades, until Wright’s death in 1959 and beyond, Taliesin West was repeatedly modified and enlarged with the addition of various buildings, including a new dining facility, a cabaret theater, a music pavilion, new workshops, a water tower, and residences for apprentices, staff members, and guests.
The complex was built, mostly by hand, by Wright’s apprentices using local stones, concrete, redwood, steel, recycled glass panels, and fabric.
The furniture was designed and crafted by the architect and his students as well, following the “learn by doing” principle upon which the Taliesin Fellowship was founded.
Taliesin West, panoramic view, left to right: Drafting Studio, original Dining Room, Guest Deck, William Wesley Peters Conference Room (formerly Peters’ apartment), and Garden Room; photo Barry Cunningham
Taliesin West is a perfect example of Wright’s idea of a profound union of architecture and nature (“I believe in God, only I spell it Nature” he once said).
In designing (and redesigning) the complex, Wright had the occasion to redefine the principles of the “Prairie School“ architecture he had adopted in Taliesin, adapting and making them respond to a new context and a different climate (“Arizona needs its own architecture” he had said in 1927 during his first visit to the Grand Canyon State) and pushing forward some of their characteristic features, such as horizontal lines and surfaces, large overhanging eaves, long strip windows, adoption of locally-sourced building materials, and discrete use of ornament and decoration. All roofs in Taliesin West are flat, either horizontal or slightly inclined.
in Arizona, Wright also “invented” a new type of construction material, which he named “Desert Masonry”, made by filling wood formworks with local rocks of different colors, meticulously selected and positioned, and then pouring a very dry mix of Portland cement, sand and little water (there was plenty of sand and rocks on the site but not much water).
Another key aspect was the use of natural light, on one side widely exploiting the strong Arizona sun to illuminate the interior spaces of the complex through a careful alignment of the buildings and a large number of roof openings covered with white canvas (later replaced with translucent acrylic sheets), and on the other introducing deep eaves in order to avoid getting an excessive solar irradiance into the rooms. Similarly, natural ventilation and cooling were obtained by taking advantage of local prevailing winds, again through unglazed openings and skylights together with water pools and plants.
Wright also planned the complex landscaping indeed, carefully positioning local trees, shrubs, and rock boulders decorated with Native American petroglyphs.
Thanks to that clever use of materials and well-thought design approach, despite the many modifications and being a rather heterogeneous collection of buildings with different functions built over a period of over twenty years (since Wright always considered it a perpetual “work-in-progress”), Taliesin West is still an exceptionally coherent architectural ensemble in its most significant aspects.
Taliesin West today
The Taliesin West complex consists today of several individual buildings, the so-called “historical core” (comprising all the structures built during Wright’s life) encompassed a floor area of about 40,000 square feet, connected by footpaths and gardens. I describe below some of the most significant of them.
Note: the dates reported refer to the original buildings’ completion, as well as to major reconstructions and/or substantial modifications. Almost all buildings in Taliesin West have been modified, more or less, over time.
Site plan of the Taliesin West complex today; photo Danielle Bardgette.
Drafting Studio and Pergola (1938-1957)
The Drafting Studio is the first permanent building of the complex; it was (and still is under many aspects) the core of Taliesin West, the main working space for the apprentices, but also a communal space for dining, gathering, and listening to music. It has solid masonry walls supporting an inclined roof consisting of a sequence of C-shape redwood beams, once covered with operable canvas panels (with translucent plastic ones, today). Over time, the original Drafting Studio underwent several modifications and technical improvements, including the addition of glass enclosures, and a rainwater draining system. The Pergola is a large wood-frame portico built on the north side of the Drafting Studio.
Drafting Studio, exterior view(photos: up GmanViz, down Tim Bradley), and interior (photo Steven C. Price)
The Pergola on the north side of the Drafting Studio; photo Nevermindtheend
Wright’s Office (1938-1958)
Originally built in 1938 and completely reconstructed twenty years later, Wright’s office is located at the west end of the so-called Historical Core. The office looks like a reduced version of the Drafting Room, with thick masonry walls and a sloped redwood frame roof equipped with canvas panels.
Wright’s Office, exterior view (photo Michael & Sherry Martin) and interior (photo Paul Gorbould)
The Loggia, now Dining Room (1938-1958)
The Loggia was created as an outdoor dining space, it was converted into an enclosed dining room in 1950 and further expanded with a steel and glass enclosure in 1958.
The Dining Room (originally Loggia); exterior (photo Archman8), and interior (photo Harboe Architects)
Kitchen, and original Dining Room now Boardroom (1938-1939)
The original Dining Room was built about one year later than the Drafting Studio and is similar to it in some aspects, such as the materials, yet it differs from it in other elements; for example, the timber and canvas roof of the Dining Room is horizontal and the interior space is much more introverted, with a slotted opening located just under the roof on three sides. In the 1950s the original canvas roof panels were replaced with glass elements (and thereafter with fiberglass ones).
Exterior view of the Boardroom, originally Dining Room; photo Adam Lechowicz
Wes and Svetlana Peters’ and Gene Masselink’s Rooms (1938-1971)
It includes the living spaces originally built for Wright’s main assistants and collaborators Gene Masselink and William Wesley “Wes” Peters, and for Peters’ first wife and Wright’s adopted daughter Svetlana (née Hinzenberg, not to be confused with Svetlana Peters Alliluyeva who was Wes Peters’ second wife and was also the only daughter of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin). Peters’ apartment was enlarged with a steel and glass enclosure in 1971 and eventually converted into a conference space (the William Wesley Peters Conference Room) in 1991.
Taliesin West, the Peters & Masselink rooms are on the ground floor on the right side of the photo; image Chad Johnson
The William Wesley Peters Conference Room is the glazed enclosure on the right; photo Teemu008
The Kiva (named after a word that indicates an underground sacred space in Pueblo’s language) was originally a sunken theater, cinema, and performing space. Converted into a library in 1949, it is one of the few buildings at Taliesin West entirely built (walls and roof) in “Desert Masonry”. A wood bridge once connected the roof terrace of the Kiva with the Guest Deck (see below), the original bridge was demolished and rebuilt in masonry in 1949.
The 1949 masonry bridge between Kiva (left) and Guest Deck; photo Joey Berzowska
Wright’s Living Quarters, and Garden Room (1940)
Wright’s Living Quarter – designed to accommodate Wright, his wife Olgivanna, and their daughter – includes two bedrooms, a sitting room, a gallery, a kitchen, and a bathroom, opening onto a private walled garden.
The Garden Room was initially intended as the Wright’s apartment living room but was converted soon after completion into a socializing space for all people residing at Taliesin West. A light-filled space with a large inclined roof made in redwood and canvas, the Garden Room opens onto an external deck, the Sunset Terrace.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s room; photo Michael & Sherry Martin
On the right: the south-east facade of the Garden Room on the walled garden of Wright’s Living Quarters; photo Deb Nystrom
Garden Room, interior views, south-east side (up) and north-west side (down); photos Nevermindtheend
Apprentice Court (1940-1941) and Guest Deck (1941-1970)
The Apprentice Court living quarters comprise fourteen rooms for the apprentices arranged around a square courtyard. The Guest Deck consists of a group of rooms for guests built over the Loggia (now Dining Room). While the apprentices’ quarters were built using masonry and wood, the Guest Desk was originally a wood frame construction, later rebuilt in steel.
A close-up of the Guest Deck; photo End User
Sun Cottage (1949)
Built to accommodate the apartment of Wright’s daughter, Iovanna, and a guest apartment with two bedrooms, the Sun Cottage inherited some of the elements of the demolished Sun Trap (Wright’s temporary wood home built in 1937); it is a lightweight construction, consisting of a wood frame structure originally (it was rebuilt in steel in 1960) resting on a massive Desert Masonry base.
Sun Cottage, exterior, and interior views; photos Michael Stephens
The Cabaret (1950)
It’s a sunken theater for live performances and film screenings, originally with tiered seating for about 50 people, which replaced the smaller Kiva as the main event space of the complex. The walls and the roof are made of Desert Masonry, the roof slab is also reinforced with steel beams; it features a peculiar Asian-inspired decorative apparatus.
The Cabaret entrance; photo David Silverman
The corridor which flanks the north side of the Cabaret; photo Nevermindtheend
Movements Pavilion (1954-1964)
Also known as Music Pavilion or simply the Pavilion, it was originally built as a dance and dance-therapy pavilion. Destroyed by a fire in 1963, it was reconstructed in 1964 replacing wood and canvas with painted steel and fiberglass. The largest performance space in Taliesin West, the Pavilion is a 126-seat theater and special event space with tiered red seats and an impressive translucent gable roof.
The Pavilion, interior view; photo _dh
The Finance Office was originally designed in the 1960s by Wright’s son-in-law, Wes Peters, as an expansion of the Wright family’s living quarters.
The Atrium and the East Wing were both designed by Peters to accommodate the apprentices.
The East Apartments, built in the early 1970s, comprises various rooms for the staff.
Located on the west end of the complex, the Visitor Center, the Bookstore, and the Ticket Office were all built in the 1980s. The complex also includes a circular fountain and two pools, including a swimming pool for the apprentices.
Visit and program of activities
The Taliesin West complex is open to visitors daily through guided tours (except in summer when it is closed Tuesday and Wednesday), and reservations are strongly recommended.
The program of activities and events at Taliesin West features temporary exhibitions, talks, live performances, concerts, film screenings, workshops, educational programs (including Summer camps), and special events.
Cover image: Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Arizona; view from the south-west; photo Michael & Sherry Martin
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