January 14, 2014

Taliesin West ~ Frank Lloyd Wright's desert home

Walking through Taliesin West, the western and winter campus of Frank Lloyd Wright, it is sometimes difficult to realise it was created in the late 1930s in what was then the eastern foothills of the small town of Scottsdale, Arizona. It seems so much more contemporary in  many ways and more modern than anything from the 1930s, all of which speaks to the genius and vision of the man.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 - 1959) was born two years after the end of the American Civil War, and he was witness to extraordinary changes that swept the world, from the end of slavery to nuclear war, from horse and carriage to rockets into space.

Wright was told repeatedly by his mother from a very early age that he would grow up to design magnificent buildings, and as a young child, when asked about what he would do with his life, replied quite honestly that he would become a great architect. In later years, he would gladly expand on that theme to anyone who would listen; he was not a humble man by any stretch.

He called his architecture organic in what might have been an early use of the word. Wright's anchor and muse was Nature, which he always spelled with a capital "N." His works were constantly striving to achieve harmony and balance with their surroundings.

Oddly, for a man devoted to Nature and with what appeared to be a respect for First Nations peoples, he moved rocks found in the desert and obviously painted by aboriginals, hundreds of years earlier, to his property. That he took pains to re-position them in exactly the same position as found, shows some respect, but if found today, these rocks would stay exactly in their place, and they should have then.

In his time, Wright was one of America's largest collectors of Japanese art, and pieces abound at Taliesin West. The understated elegance and simplicity of Japanese art and thought, and its embracing of nature, is clearly evident in Wright's work: water, trees and rock are present everywhere.

The desert masterpiece that is Taliesin West was begun in 1937. It was to be his winter camp and a bold  new enterprise for desert living. It set in place a pattern of migration between the two Taliesins, East and West, which is continued to this day by a select group of students enrolled in the FLW School of Architecture.

While in Arizona students continue a tradition, begun almost eighty years ago, that of living in "shepherd's tents" made of canvas and attached to a three square metre masonry base - in the desert. This was done to better help the students understand the Nature of the Sonoran Desert in which they lived. No word about snakes and spiders, coyotes and god knows what else.

Today, students design and live in their own designs, still on three square metres, though more often than not, their designs are dedicated to avoiding snakes, scorpions and rats.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2014. 

Pictures of FLW and student shelters 
from official website.

Taliesin West is a wonderful introduction to the larger-than-life character that was Frank Lloyd Wright. He was a man full of bombast and exaggeration, a womanizer and wildly reckless with money, yet a profoundly creative spirit who saw things beyond the comprehension of most of those around him. Taliesin West is a fascinating place to experience, even for just an afternoon.

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