March 20, 2007


While in Arizona, we stayed at the Camelback Inn, a resort whose tagline is: "Where Time Stands Still:"
This tagline amused me greatly. Can't tell you how many times I looked at that clock, perpetually at 1:25, and thought it really was 1:25.

On our last full day in Arizona, Scott's business meetings concluded at noon. Afterward, a small group was going to view the Frank Lloyd Wright house just north of Scottsdale. Scott claimed to have little interest ("I've read The Natural House, I know all I need to know about Frank Lloyd Wright," said he) but I begged to go along.

Frank Lloyd Wright had been mentioned in the feng shui classes I recently took -- and his architecture pointed out as a bad example. This was just the briefest of brief mentions, but it had stuck in my mind. The feng shui instructor, Dr. Hsu, had been talking about how the qi moves through a house -- you don't want to live in a house where the qi moves too quickly, and you don't want to live in a house where the qi moves too slowly. And he had said that the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Pennsylvania, Fallingwater, has entirely too much qi, built as it is around a waterfall. (Ponds and lakes are desirable to live by, but moving water has energy, and waterfalls have tremendous energy.) Fallingwater might be an interesting place to visit, but you couldn't live there comfortably, according to Dr. Hsu.

So these ideas of house, home, architecture, and decorating all currently stewing in my mind, when this offer to go to the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Arizona came up, I really didn't want to pass it up. (I had missed my opportunity to tour Fallingwater when we were in Pittsburgh in 2004, and wished I would have gone.) And even if one of us had read The Natural House, we really had no idea what we were going to tour.

Taliesen West was built by Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1930s to be his winter home, drafting studio and office where he could meet with clients, and also to house the school of architecture that he ran. (Today Taliesen West is home to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, houses Wright's archives, and is still an active school of architecture, with an enrollment of 19 students per year; students can earn either a Bachelor's or a Master's in Architecture.) It is a series of low, sprawling buildings that are built in the "brow" of the desert mountains. The buildings are low and mesa-like, and triangular shapes in the rooflines are supposed to mimic the shape of the mountains -- as though the buildings sprang up organically out of the hillside. And in terms of materials, in a way, they did: The masonry is all made from local rock, cemented together. The beams are redwood, painted rusty color, and the doors are all painted a rusty-red -- these colors echo the desert terrain.

The first building our tour entered was the one Wright used as an office to meet with clients. Wright's signature style is to have low doorways and entryways that sort of "squeeze" you into the main space, and this door was no exception. It had a clearance of, at most, six feet -- no problem for me, but many of the taller men on the tour had to duck to get through. The shape of the door was a distorted, stretched hexagon -- Wright was trying to "think out of the box" and avoided box shapes as much as possible at Taliesen West.

When you're taking a tour accompanied by others in the fabric business, this is what it's like -- we stepped into this office, and instantly, Faith, who has a marine fabrics business, said, "Oooh, that's canvas." It would have taken me longer to notice. But, indeed, the roof was made of a series of overlapping panels -- wooden frames with canvas stretched over them. (And, unfortunately, the canvas was not looking that great -- you could see streaks where rainwater had trickled and pooled. Our tour guide said that there were channels in the roof beams to make the water flow out. Nevertheless, I am sure that, since 1937 when the place was built, the canvas roof panels have been continually re-covered. Our little group tried to speculate who was getting the business to supply the canvas to Taliesen West.)

Wright's office/studio.

The point of the canvas roofs was this: Wright called his Arizona home his "camp." He wanted it to be tentlike -- and simulataneously, boat-like (a "ship on the desert"). The canvas filters the sunlight in a very pleasant way, and provides a nice, even lighting if you are trying to do architectural drawings. The canvas panels could be removed and re-arranged at will.

Next, our group walked to the front of the compound, to look back at the buildings set against the hillside:

Obligatory touristy shot.

I recognized from theatre history class (of all places!) that this reflecting pond in front of the main building serves as primitive air conditioning: as the wind moves up from the valley and over the pond, it becomes cooled and carries some of that cooling effect into the room beyond which is the large drafting studio. We were allowed to walk through the drafting studio, where several people (presumably the architecture students) were at work, but not allowed to take any photographs while in there. (Our guide emphasized that the reflecting pond was a source of water in case of fire, and said that Wright would keep a set of buckets near the door so that he and his students could form a bucket brigade if the need arose. Scott and I did not know during the tour that Wright's original Taliesen in Wisconsin had burned down in a very tragic case of arson. Our guide didn't mention this, but in retrospect I realize that this was why our guide emphasized that Wright was prepared for fire. In fact, our guide didn't mention much of anything about Wright's scandalous past.)

Another obligatory touristy shot.

The rooms behind Scott are the dining rooms and some private living quarters. These rooms were not included in our tour. We could peek in the windows and see that the dining tables were already set for dinner -- presumably as the dining hall for the architecture students.

Our next stop was the Garden Room, the primary living room where Wright and his wife would entertain their guests. We had to go through this maze-like entryway:

First, coming in through the red door --

like all good entryways, this one has a bench and a mirror (and I assume the wooden part at the left is the door to the coat closet), but the space is so small you wouldn't pause for long, but instead turn immediately clockwise to the next segment of the entryway --


a low partitioning wall that you have to walk around to get further into the room -- (I was impressed by the mosaic of little rocks. The guide told me it was by Claire Booth Luce, and he told me the name of it, which I promptly forgot, but it was something like "Moonlight on the Desert.") -- another 90-degree turn, this time counterclockwise, to really enter the Garden Room.

Scott relaxes in front of the big stone fiireplace in one of the "origami chairs" that Wright designed.

A smaller, more intimate living room off of the Garden Room.

We toured other parts of the complex, too, but I'll leave you with just this last shot, of the Cabaret theatre:


Wright loved the movies and this is the second of three movie screens at Taliesen West. There is a very small stage where our guide is standing, and usually a piano. You'll see some triangular-shaped floor lighting at the left of the photo -- a Frank Lloyd Wright invention. That wall at left has an angle in it, as does the masonry wall on the right -- instead of being made up of four sides (floor, ceiling, walls) the entire room is a distorted hexagon and yet another example of Wright avoiding the box shape.

There is a larger stage in the third theatre at Taliesen West. The architecture students put on plays there! They design their own sets (of course!) and costumes, and act in them. As a former drama teacher, my heart just thrilled when I saw the display of the photos of the students' productions. In fact, all of the arts are practiced as part of the curriculum. Wright used to tell his students: "Bring a sleeping bag and a tuxedo." They'd be sleeping in the desert in tents, for their first year of study, and they'd need the tuxedo for formal nights of music and theatre.

Even though Scott had dragged his heels about going to Taliesen West, he was very much drawn into the atmosphere of the place -- so much so that he even bought a membership in the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Visiting Taliesen West was very much the highlight of our Arizona trip, and I recommend it.

For a Wikipedia article on Frank Lloyd Wright, click here.

Posted by Karen at March 20, 2007 12:39 PM

Those are great photos Karen! I saw a DVD on Wright and was so amazed that his mother decided he was going to be an architect when he was a baby. I grew up in Oak Park, IL so I got to walk by some of his houses on a regular basis.

Posted by: Nanette at March 25, 2007 01:47 PM

Great fun to read your thoughts on Taliesen West. It was a fun afternoon and as much fun watching Scott's attitude turn around. It is also fun watching us in the industry walk down a street looking up everytime we walk under an awning and those passing trying to figure out what everyone is looking at. See you October.

Posted by: Kevin at April 3, 2007 11:59 AM