Taliesen West Showcases the Genius of Frank Lloyd Wright

It’s on full display at Taliesen West, the birthplace of modern American design.


Published:

Photos by Ramona d'Viola

For the uninitiated, a visit to a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building is an experience. But for those with an appreciation of thoughtful, human-scaled design, a trip to Wright’s school at Taliesen West is akin to visiting Mecca.

Wright took up an annual pilgrimage to the arid desert climes of Scottsdale, Arizona, at age 70 on his doctor’s advice to ward off bouts of near-fatal pneumonia exacerbated by the harsh Midwestern winters. Wright packed his camping gear into one of his fancy cars and headed west.

It was 1935, the middle of the Great Depression, and land was dirt cheap. The intrepid architect bought 670 acres of high desert on the slopes of the McDowell Range, overlooking the serendipitously named Paradise Valley. 

The region was dotted with otherworldly flora and fauna, and Wright was captivated by the rugged landscape, magnificent blue skies, billowing cloud formations, and far milder climate. He paid $2,170 for the property and named it Taliesen West.

For the next 25 years, Wright ventured to his Arizona “camp” at the first hint of winter, traveling along Route 66, before staking his canvas tent in the brow of the mountain. He soon regained his health and his fortitude, and his work flourished.

In spite of his successes, Wright faced a perpetual state of indebtedness that perhaps led him to solve problems using inexpensive materials and lots of ingenuity. Arizona provided the architect with building supplies and boundless inspiration. 

He employed the cheap, sturdy canvas of his tent throughout his buildings, first to shade from the sun, but later to soften and diffuse natural light to sublime effect.

The architect recruited dozens of young people to venture, learn, and live in this rustic place, loaning them his expensive cars to make the cross-country journey every winter. Their education in architecture began in earnest with the building of their own classrooms, dining facilities, utility buildings, and Wright’s eventual residence.

Wright dubbed the style “desert masonry,” as the low-slung buildings constructed from readily available rocks and sand seamlessly blend into their environment.

It would take several years to convince his third wife, the Montenegrin dancer Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, to join him in wintering at his southwest surrounds. Once she arrived, however, the primitive living conditions got more civilized — and the parties ensued.

At Olgivanna’s persistent insistence, windows and doors were eventually installed in the couple’s living quarters and throughout the campus. These “upgrades” provided welcome protection from the elements yet allowed frequent visits by wild animals, including pig-like javelinas that wandered into the couple’s courtyard. 

Under Olgivanna’s tutelage, Taliesen West emerged as a cultural and intellectual nexus, regularly hosting creative luminaries from around the world. The couple’s frequent soirees included modern dance performances, plays, recitals, movie screenings, and dinners hosted in their home’s lovely Garden Room, the auditorium-sized theater, or in the more glamorous, European-inspired cabaret, one of the last structures to be built at Taliesen West.

Wright applied his legendary skills into this acoustically perfect performance space. The quasi-subterranean, hexagonally shaped cabaret space lacks right angles, thus allowing sound waves to travel in a circular vortex without echo or diminishment. On the cabaret’s stage, a speaker, performer, or pianist can be heard perfectly, even with their backs turned to the audience and speaking in a whisper, no matter where a guest was seated.

Wright was an egalitarian educator (or, some say, an opportunist). Taliesen West (unaccredited as it was) would be among the first architectural schools to accept women students. As progressive as this may sound, it was more of a response to the stark financial realities of Depression-era America than the pursuit of gender equality. In truth, anyone with the $650 tuition and a strong back who didn’t mind sleeping in a tent was admitted.

Today, a coveted seat in the Taliesen West classroom costs students $20,000 per semester. Yet, unlike Wright’s early apprentices, modern-day graduates obtain an accredited master’s of architecture degree and the prestigious title of Frank Lloyd Wright Fellow.

Some students still choose to live in canvas tents during their winter sojourn to Taliesen West to draw inspiration from the quality of light, just like the master. Others construct their own shelters, to be left and lived in by the students who follow. For all, however, there is one constant: the preservation of Wright’s singular legacy, one organically designed building at a time.