Taliesin West was architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and studio in the desert from 1937 until his death in 1959 at the age of 91. Today it is the headquarters of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Open to the public for tours, Taliesin West is located on Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard in Scottsdale, Arizona. The complex drew its name from Wright’s home, Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship began to “migrate” to Arizona each winter in 1935 to escape the harsh Wisconsin winters for Wright’s health on his doctor’s advice. In 1937 Wright purchased the plot of desert land that would soon become Taliesin West. He paid “$3.50 an acre on a southern slope of the McDowell Range overlooking Paradise Valley outside Scottsdale.”
Wright believed this to be the perfect spot for such a building: a place of residence, a place of business and a place to learn. Wright described it like this, “Finally I learned of a site twenty-six miles from Phoenix, across the desert of the vast Paradise Valley. On up to a great mesa in the mountains. On the mesa just below McDowell Peak we stopped, turned, and looked around. The top of the world.” An investment of over $10,000 was needed to dig a well deep enough to provide sufficient water for the campus. In the initial winters Wright and his students lived in tents while they built the first structures, mainly by hand using as much local material as possible (rocks, stone and sand). The design of the buildings complemented the natural Sonoran Desert landscape of the site. When Wright and his family arrived they found Native American petroglyphs among the rocks. One, seen today at the beginning of the guided tour, shows what may be hands clasping. Wright stylized the figures into interconnected lines, which became the symbol of Taliesin West.
The structure’s walls are made of local desert rocks, stacked within wood forms, filled with concrete – colloquially referred to as “desert masonry”. Wright always favored using the materials readily available rather than those that must be transported to the site. In Wright’s own words: “There were simple characteristic silhouettes to go by, tremendous drifts and heaps of sunburned desert rocks were nearby to be used. We got it all together with the landscape…” The flat surfaces of the rocks were placed outward facing and large boulders filled the interior space so concrete could be conserved. Natural light also played a major part in the design. In the drafting room, Wright used translucent canvas to act as a roof (later replaced by plastic because of the intense wear from the Arizona sun). In the south-facing dining room, Wright did not take the masonry walls from floor to ceiling, and designed the roof to hang past the walls preventing unwanted sun rays from penetrating but allowing for horizontal light to pass through the room. Wright believed natural light aided the work environment he had his apprentices in, keeping the inside of his building in touch with the natural surroundings.
Every part of Taliesin West bears Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal touch. Upon every return after a summer in Wisconsin Wright would grab a hammer and immediately make his way through the complex. He would walk through each room making changes or shouting orders to apprentices closely following with wheelbarrows and tools. He constantly changed and improved on his design fixing arising problems and addressing new situations. Throughout the years he enlarged the dining room, as well as added the cabaret theatre, music pavilion and numerous other rooms. All of the furniture and decorations were designed by Wright and the majority built by apprentices. A brilliant aspect of Wright’s design is the cabaret theatre. Built with six sides, out of the standard rock-concrete mixture, in an irregularly hexagonal shape, the theatre provides its occupants with what someone has called “95% acoustic perfection”. Someone sitting in the back row can hear the lightest whisper from a speaker on stage.