Architecture with a capital “A” is often thought of being static. It is a well-planned design by a well-known architect that typically doesn’t change much after it is built. Conversely, we categorize vernacular architecture as something that uses local materials, often designed by the local builder, built by the community, and gets added to over time as families or finances grow. Where does Taliesin West lie between these very separate paths? Built by one of the best known architects in the world, Frank Lloyd Wright, it is easy to associate Taliesin West with Wright’s extensive list of monumental designs such as Falling Water and the Guggenheim. And yet, Taliesin West is so different. Built as a winter house and school for the Taliesin Fellowship architect students in Scottsdale, Arizona, it was designed with low walls and local materials to fit in with its surrounds. Wright had his student “community” build the structures, which were constantly added to and changed throughout the years until his death. It was an organic and experimental structure that defied how we think about Architecture.
After Wright’s death, his legacy lived on through his third wife, Olgvanna, and apprentices who continued to add to the structure to make it more habitable. Fires and reconstructions also added to the list of changes, which replaced some of the wood materials with steel. However, in the 2000’s, restorations were made to Taliesin West’s living quarters transform it back to a time when Wright lived there and many of Olgvanna’s additions were removed. Recent preservation efforts continue the renovations, conservation and maintenance of Wright’s buildings. The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture also continues Wright’s legacy of studying architecture at both Taliesin and Taliesin West where students still must build their own living structure and work on design/built projects in the local communities to learn how to practice in the real world.
As a preservationist, I loved visiting Taliesin West and seeing how the structures looked during Wright’s time there as well as seeing his passion for Asian art, music, and design throughout the site, and knowing that it was well-maintained. On the other hand, I wonder how Wright would feel about it today; would he be happy that the structure was frozen in time or did he hope for the building to continue to grow and change as an organic structure post-mortem? Though the question may never be answered, my thoughts are mollified knowing that the school continues to work and study in the buildings, still inspired by Wright’s vision.
One thing I can be sure about; it was lucky that the telephone poles were added to Scottsdale during Wright’s lifetime, which obstructed his view and caused him to shift the buildings to mostly face in the other direction. Otherwise, Wright would have been upset for Taliesin West to be facing the now over-developed landscape, which he had so dearly loved when it was an empty desert.
Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright, 1937-1959
Harboe Architects PC, “Taliesin West Preservation Plan”, The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, 2015. http://www.franklloydwright.org
“Taliesin: Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture,” http://www.taliesin.edu