HolidayBuyer's Guide

Frank Lloyd Wright's spirit lives on at Taliesin West

Famed architect's western headquarters house an architecture school and carry on his legacy of great design. Photos: Where Frank Lloyd Wright comes alive

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.--I'm not an architect or an architecture student, but I'm intimidated.

I'm here at Taliesin West, uberarchitect Frank Lloyd Wright's Arizona home and school, and now home to the foundation bearing his name.

And the place is such an aesthetic, engineering and living beauty that I don't quite know how to behave.

I've come here for one of the afternoon tours, a 90-minute affair that fills the mind, eyes and body with a kind of wonder, a feeling of "I'm not worthy" and a wish to live in a place like this.

Taliesin West is another stop on my Road Trip 2007 around the Southwest, and having just come from sites like the , Grand Canyon Skywalk and Hoover Dam, it was going to take a lot to impress me. And Taliesin West doesn't disappoint.

For Wright, the word "taliesin," which is Welsh for "shining brow," is almost sacred. He built his western estate--he had a sister facility in Wisconsin--on the brow of a hill overlooking what would one day become Scottsdale, in such a way that it can't be seen from below, but affords unlimited views.

Wright began construction of the facility in 1937, when he was 70 years old and, many thought, washed up.

But his professional output only grew after moving in. He went on to produce endless additional buildings around the globe, astounding the architectural world and becoming one of the only, if not the only, architect to have a flourishing career both before and after World War II.

Wright died in 1959, at 92, leaving behind a legacy of architectural supremacy that some feel is still alive today. That's in large part because his school--the smallest architecture school in the country--still accepts students, offering both bachelor's and master's degrees. Also a factor is that so many of his inventions and innovations are considered standards today.

A full list of such inventions would probably take too long, but a short tally of some of the best includes metal furniture, recessed lighting, track lighting, glass doors, upright urinals, in-floor lighting and path lighting.

Additionally, he based his structural philosophy--making a sort of cage of rebar and wrapping cement around it--on a type of cactus found in Arizona that has a similar form. In his time, it was thought such a structure would never hold the weight of a building. Today, this technique is used worldwide.

For Wright, canvas ceilings were vital because of the way they allowed in the appropriate amount of light during the day without requiring heavy electricity use or casting the kinds of shadows that make it hard to do architectural drawings.

That's why nearly every room at Taliesin West has canvas ceilings, and though that's counter-intuitive, I was a quick convert. It makes a room feel comfortable, airy, not too bright and entirely usable.

This probably wouldn't work in cities where it is frequently cold, but then again, who knows?

In keeping with a philosophy of organic design in which Wright felt construction should be done using local materials, Taliesin West's major structural material is quartzite. Everywhere you look are large blocks of it, which, legend has it, the architect's apprentices would have to carry by hand to wherever they were needed.

The next most important material used here is cement, which he mixed in a 1:10 ratio with sand. Then, he used rough-sawn redwood because it was cheap, but sturdy, an important characteristic during the Depression when Taliesin West was built.

Finally, in addition to the previously mentioned canvas ceilings, the facility uses a lot of glass, though it's not something Wright wanted to rely on at first. He had designed the estate with no windows, only open gaps in rooms, which turned out to be an invitation to all kinds of desert critters. Wright's wife put her foot down, and later Wright claimed that adding glass was one of the best ideas he'd ever had.

Another important idea of his was one he borrowed, and then bent and broke, from his mentor, Louis Sullivan, an architectural giant from Chicago who had hired Wright at age 20 with no credentials but a prodigy's understanding of 3D space.

That philosophy was "form follows function." To Wright, however, the proper way to put it was "form and function are one."

That's why all apprentices and students at Taliesin West are required to cook for everyone there. It turns out the best way to learn how to design a kitchen is to use one, and for anyone whose kitchen was disastrously designed, that idea is sure to make a lot of sense.

It's hard to know how to approach many of the rooms at Taliesin West, but Wright's philosophies are evident in each and every one. Among the most noteworthy are his office, a relatively small, light and airy space with a low drafting table that invites productive work and cooperative energy; a music pavilion where live concerts could be played and where new apprentices had a dinner hosted in their honor; Wright's bedroom--small and spare, but with great valley views; and the living room, a large, open space with a welcoming feel and a lovely fireplace.

Essentially, Wright hated borrowing other people's ideas. The concept of "thinking outside the box" was shorthand for only being a little more original than everybody else. Wright wanted to destroy the box, and that's why so much of what he did as a professional and what is evident at Taliesin West and in so many of his other creations is so different than what anyone else in the world had built.

Even today, 48 years after his death, so much of what Wright built and stood for is seen as simply the best and the standard by which all other architectural design is measured by.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and am lucky enough to drive by the Marin County Civic Center quite often. Anyone who's ever seen that building--which was featured in the science fiction films Gattaca and THX 1138--knows what I mean when I say that a Frank Lloyd Wright design is worth going out of your way to view.

And that's why I've come to Scottsdale. It was definitely one of the reasons I wanted to do this road trip in the Southwest and I'm very glad to have come here--even if I walk away feeling a little like I will never create anything worthy of Wright's standards.

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