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Organic Architecture


Taliesin West - 1937-59
12621 Frank lloyd Wright Blvd, Scottsdale, Arizona

Although I have been met by objections from people knowledgeable of Frank Lloyd Wright, I believe the significant differences between Taliesin West and Taliesin East are caused by something greater than just the difference in location. I believe that the comparison of the two shows a development of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural philosophies, and his progression toward the almost total breakdown of the architectural envelope.

The original Taliesin East was built in 1911 and stems from his work in the “prairie style”. It was rebuilt and modified numerous times, but because of Wright’s belief in organic, complete structures, these additions were kept in keeping with the style and intent of the original building. The structure reflects an attempt to build an architecture that is native to the American Prairie. This proposition alone is indicative of his love of the landscapes of America, and is explained by his upbringing in the rolling hills of rural Wisconsin – where he would eventually build Taliesin East. Yet, this landscape, while beautiful in summer, is bitterly cold in the winter. It would then seem inherently reasonable that he regarded buildings as providing protection against the terrible cold outside. Although his prairie buildings were far more open than the prevailing Victorian style, they were still quite internalized. Taliesin East still demonstrates the flow of space from interior to exterior, but there is still a sense of enclosure. The plush finishes of the interior add warmth, but provide a distinction between the interior and exterior.

The construction of Taliesin West came after a long period of little work for the architect, and after he had spent six years living abroad in Tokyo. He had returned to the United States and in 1927 had acted as a consultant on Albert Chase McArthur’s Arizona Biltmore Hotel. Wright supervised the implementation of his textile block system in the hotel, and was introduced to the Arizona landscape. He gained a commission for a large resort complex and established a camp in the desert called Ocotillo. This temporary camp of wooden framed canvas tents provides the essence behind Taliesin West. Wright found in the Arizona landscapes almost a sense of nirvana. It presented him with abstract and dramatic rock forms, with beautiful coloured skies, and a climate that almost did away with any need for shelter at all.

It was during this period, when he was starting to spend the winters in Arizona that his architecture began to express a flow of space unhindered by the envelope. Fallingwater and the Jacobs residence were produced during this period, and both show a revolutionary dissolution of traditional definitions of space.

Wright was already spending his winters in Arizona when he established the Taliesin fellowship. He bought 80 acres of remote desert outside Scottsdale (not far from the Arizona Biltmore) and proceeded to build his house and drafting offices. In 1936 Wright had established the Taliesin Fellowship which acted as a school of architecture, and a drafting office for his projects. Some 30 young architects payed fees to learn from Wright, and were set to work, building the new facility.

Taliesin West consists primarily of a series of wood framed structures clad in white canvas, and set above massive stone and concrete walls. The stone walls were created from boulders found on the site, which were set in concrete. The mixture of concrete and stone provide a perfect colour compliment, and a walling solution that is not only totally native to its site, but forms a integral connection to the ground. The redwood frame wraps over the stone walls, as clearly independent elements from the stone. They are lightweight. A canvas roof is then stretched below the beams and forms a translucent ceiling that glows in the sunlight. It feels to me that if the canvas roof should for some reason blow away, what remained could be taken as simply a part of the landscape.

Originally there was no glass in the building, when one wanted to open the canvas structure to the views or the breeze; you would simply roll back the canvas. In this sense the structure is more like a tent or a cabana than any other building typology, and was clearly inspired by his love of his desert camps. His own personal bedroom was nestled between solid stone walls, but allowed the bed to be wheeled outdoors, so he could sleep under the stars. It seems to me, that he would have continued using desert camps, and living outside if it weren’t for the need to protect his drawings, equipment and pianos from the very occasional rain shower, or to present his practice as something other than a band of desert nomads. If we view the emphasis of Wright’s architecture as the breaking down of the building envelope, Taliesin West might be considered the zenith of this approach. Its temporary tent like feel no longer encloses the occupant in the heavy masses that have traditionally defined space. With the walls rolled up, and the sun light pouring through canvas canopy, any sense of enclosure is lost.

At the request of his wife who objected to finding all sorts of desert creatures in the structure, and presumably some other members of the Taliesin fellowship who had similar feelings, Wright eventually fitted some glazing into the structure. The glazing increased the functionality of the building, but in my mind diluted the intent of the building somewhat. It subsequently is a little less light and a little less free.

In using glass, Wright was certainly no slouch. He installed the glazing in a way that still maintains a strong flow of space between the interior and exterior, and largely preserves the qualities of the tent like structure. It must also be noted that the accommodation for apprentices were also tents. It speaks volumes that in providing an education to his draftsmen, he thought it valuable to have them sleep outdoors, under canvas, and be in tune with the rhythms of the earth.

There are parts of Taliesin West that are not adjourned by the canvas roofing system, and adopt a more recognisable Usonian flat roof. These elements appear as a series of horizontal planes, careering out into the desert, and break down the interior spatial definition. They are built in a very light weight fashion that preserves the temporary feel of the rest of the structure. .

Since Wright’s death, the Taliesin Fellowship continued his practice, continued to accept apprentices, and started to inhabit Taliesin West year round. In this process, Taliesin West lost some of its organic beauty. No longer was Arizona a place of idyllic conditions that required no more than a thin canvas cover to protect from the elements. Under the harsh, dry heat of the Arizona summer sun, Taliesin West becomes absurd, its light skin offering no protection from the desert heat.

To make the Taliesin West habitable in summer, translucent Perspex now lines the roof. It still brings light through, but it has lost the temporary lightness and any possibility of movement in the breeze which helped to create a sensual connection to the outdoors. It has also been fitted with air-conditioning. This makes the buildings comfortable, but creates two very distinct climates, and isolates the occupants from the scorching desert surrounding them.
It is unfortunate that the building now is used throughout the year, but is apparently necessity to maintain the building as a functioning school of architecture, and to preserve the building for visits by the public.

In Taliesin West, Wrights architectural emphasis; of creating architecture that broke down the confines of traditional definitions of space, Taliesin may be considered as his penultimate achievement. As a piece of organic architecture I believe it is probably the purest example of a sentiment that desires to connect people with their environments... the only possible contender built by Wright may well be his earlier desert camps.

Copyright 2013.        Andrew T Boyne Architect.        A: 69 Stanley St Nedlands 6009 Western Australia        P: 0423601604         E: