Studio E’s Eric Naslund at Taliesin West

Two weekends ago, while making a baseball Spring Training trek to Phoenix, I visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. I am embarrassed to admit that in all my years of living in Southern California, I had never been to see the place. You have to think that this has got to be on any architect’s required pilgrimage sites and I will attest that it is certainly worth the trek, even if more than thirty years later than expected.

Although once set well away from the developed city of Phoenix with plenty of desert between, the site now has sprawl right up to its southern flanks and it is a little shocking to see this so nearby. It reminded me a bit of my first experience seeing The Alamo in downtown San Antonio as a kid. I just wasn’t expecting to see high rises next door. It made the Alamo seem small and oddly entombed. Taliesin West by contrast still maintains its sense of life and purpose despite the proximity of development nearly completely at odds with the principles of Wright. If anything, the contrast enhanced the experience of seeing the place. I guess to see a light you have to have a dark to stick it in.

Light is an appropriate metaphor for Taliesin West. Conceived as a camp by Wright, the original buildings were canvas roofed which infused the interiors in an even and diffuse light. Subsequent alterations to make more permanent structures effectively maintained the glowing overhead quality of those canvas roofs and the spaces have a kind of inside and outside all at once feeling to them that is quite spectacular. Of course this was the winter home for the fellowship and I am sure that the mid-August experience would be quite different.

Also of note for me was the way that Wright employed contrast in his design. Things heavy and light, rooted and billowing, constrained and expansive were all employed to great effect and were brilliantly choreographed to create the kinds of experiences that made the magic of the site evident and apparent. Wright carefully interlocked these contrasts to get the most from each of them.

Finally, I was struck by the enduring legacy of the Taliesin design and in particular in how it meets the land. In fact it seems to grow of it as a kind of geometric abstraction of the place. There is a sense of rightness about the buildings and their relationship with the place. This is extraordinary because Wright had a particular and recognizable compositional strategy that comes with all of his work. Here he resolves the seeming conflict between his own insistence and his deep observation of the place. There is an interesting dialogue between will and openness. I guess that I don’t see this well balanced too often and there are certainly lessons here for any designer. Perhaps this is Wright’s greatest use of contrast.

I would recommend a visit. Tell me your observations. I’d love to hear what you heard while there. Taliesin West is open for public tours every day, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, from 9am-4pm.

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