Of all the buildings that Frank Lloyd Wright designed, his favorite was Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. It’s one of the most popular destinations for lovers and admirers of the architect’s work, and, with the possible exception of Fallingwater, it was the Wright home I most wanted to visit.
You don’t have to be a Wrightophile to appreciate Taliesin West. It can be a worthwhile visit even for those who have never heard of the iconoclastic architect. Wright’s homes were designed to harmonize with their natural surroundings – and this is certainly true of Taliesin West. There’s an integration of indoor and outdoor spaces consistent with his greatest designs.
The first Taliesin in Wisconsin was named after a Welsh poet who, according to Wright, “sang of the glories of fine art.” It was built as a home for Wright in 1911, but had to be rebuilt twice due to a series of fires. Following these mishaps, Wright came to Arizona in 1927 at the age of 60.
Wright and his students built Taliesin West basically by hand using indigenous materials – the sand, gravel and stone he found on the slope of McDowell Mountain. Surrounded by the Sonoran Desert, Taliesin West became Wright’s winter home.
Wright believed in an organic architecture at one with nature, and you immediately sense this at Taliesin West. Stepping into the structure, you feel almost a part of the mountain and the desert. The stone walls, wider at the base, create a sturdy foundation. Wright’s design contributes to the sense of it being a living organism; a series of terraces, gardens, courtyards and walkways linked together on different levels of the property are consistent with this philosophy.
A variety of tours led by docents and former students are offered, ranging from one to three hours. I took the most popular tour, the 90-minute Insights tour. The tour provides some discussion of Wright’s design philosophy, so that even those with little advance knowledge of the great architect can appreciate his work. The tour costs $32 but there are group, student and senior discounts available. You must be on a tour to see the property – you cannot wander around on your own, so those independent travelers who eschew tours are out of luck. A private tour, however, can be arranged. Bring sunglasses, a hat and, especially, water.
The tour I went on is not necessarily recommended for young children. You can, however, enroll them in the Creative Architecture for Juniors Program, an interactive tour designed to introduce young people to architecture. This is offered 10:30 daily. Tour schedules vary by time and day, so visit franklloydwright.org for further information.
The tour begins in the excellent bookstore filled with hundreds of books by or about Wright and his architectural philosophy. There are also a variety of gifts based on his designs. Walking into the living room, named the Garden Room, I was struck by the low ceiling (almost literally – while entering the room I nearly bumped my head on the stone entrance!). This is a characteristic feature of many of Wright’s homes. He was not a tall man and apparently didn’t care for people lingering in the doorways.
Standing in the room, I had the sensation of being of being one of Wright’s private guests. The spacious, well-lit room is a comfortable gathering spot with a large fireplace and windows that allow you to look out to the garden. An intimate dining area adjoins the room with a small bust of the master eyeing the space. This room is an example of Wright’s view of an architectural space as a seamless, flowing entity with unity of form like a symphony. I would surmise also that the stone walls hold the remnants of many fascinating conversations.
Some other highlights of the property include the Cabaret Theater, the Music Pavilion where students were encouraged to perform, the spartan bedrooms where his Japanese influence is apparent, the reflecting pool, and the sculpture garden. Rocks with Native American petroglyphs are sculptural objects marking the entrance. There are many other details to appreciate at Taliesin West. Don’t forget to savor the panoramic view of the desert.
Wright used Taliesin West as a laboratory in instructing and working with his students, and it became the headquarters of his innovative architectural school. Apprentices slept in a 10x10 canvas tent in the desert. They lived by the philosophy of learning by doing. Architectural students continue to live and study at Taliesin West.
Wright, widely considered America’s greatest architect, was a nonconformist with his share of personal eccentricities and shortcomings. He was a design genius and made sure others didn’t forget it. You can sit at a table in his office and imagine yourself the master himself. From 1937 to 1959, Wright alternated living between Taliesin and Taliesin West. He died at Taliesin West on April 9, 1959.
Through Taliesin West, now a National Historic Landmark, Wright seems to be thumbing his nose at suburban sprawl. It can be described as the anti-suburban suburban home that evokes, at once, poetry, serenity and drama. By the end of the tour you just might fantasize living there.