Reading about Taliesin West

While there is not quite as much material on Taliesin West as on some of Wright’s more famous buildings, there is still plenty to be said about the building that functioned as Wright’s winter home, studio, and school. Below are a few notes from a series of sources of information on Taliesin West.

From the Arch Daily online journal:

  • Taliesin West indicates a turning point for Wright in terms of design, in which he more fully integrates the idea of context and site specificity into his signature Prairie style.
  • Not only is setting the building low to the ground aesthetically pleasing, it also ensures more efficient natural ventilation, something essential for the Arizona heat.
  • Some of Wright’s most famous projects, such as the Guggenheim Museum in New York, were designed at Taliesin West.

According to the website of the Frank Lloyd Wright foundation, the building is not designed or built to contemporary accessibility standards. While this is a shame, it is also not truly a surprise, since not only was it designed and constructed before most of these standards were instituted, but Wright’s buildings are notorious for not being able to fully accommodate contemporary needs. Wright favored aesthetics over functionality, which led to structural problems even in his time and still persist today in some of his buildings.

The Frank Lloyd Wright foundation naturally also has a wealth of information of Wright himself. Some facts:

  • Though his career spanned a great deal of technological change, from travel by horse to spaceship, Wright’s main focus was always nature. This duality expresses itself in his work; his buildings combine technological innovation, such as cantilevers, with a deep and inextricable connection to their sites.
  • While Wright’s main mission was to create a uniquely American form of architecture, as exemplified by his Usonian homes, Wright was also tremendously influenced by Japanese art. He was a big collector and admirer, and many of his works (Taliesin West included) reveal this influence in their designs.
  • The perception of Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship is that it was just an architecture school, but the reality encompasses far more. Wright’s vision for the Taliesin Fellowship was that it would become a “total learning environment.” In addition to studying architecture, the apprentices learned a myriad of other skills from carpentry and construction to cooking to dance. The Taliesin Fellowship exists to this day, and the apprentices at Taliesin West today still follow this learning model.

In his introduction to Ezra Stoller’s book of plates on Taliesin West, Neil Levine describes the physical characteristics of the site and structure of Taliesin West.

  • The inspiration to construct Taliesin West came from Wright’s stay in Arizona working on a design for a hotel. Wright and his apprentices stayed for four months in the desert, living in a camp they constructed called Ocatilla. While the plans for the hotel fell through as a result of the Great Depression, Wright was inspired by the experience of working in the desert under the canvas ceilings that  allowed for better natural light and ventilation. Additionally, Wright craved change, and the costs of maintaining Taliesin in Wisconsin year-round were proving to be exorbitant, so Wright brought his family and the Fellowship to Arizona in 1937 to begin construction on Taliesin West.
  • Part of the source of the prehistoric feeling of Taliesin is that the site itself is quite ancient. The area in which Taliesin West sits was the hunting ground and ceremonial site for the prehistoric Hohokam, and their petroglyphs still mark the site.
  • While in most buildings the experience is defined by the enclosed spaces, the significance of Taliesin West is the space around and between the buildings. The walkways and terraces connect not only the structures to each other but to the landscape as a whole.

In contrast, Kathryn Smith’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Taliesin West focuses more on the Fellowship and how it interacted with the building.

  • The angular forms of the walls are meant to signify the tents of a nomadic tribe, further adding to the prehistoric feel of the building. A major emphasis in Taliesin West is framing views, to make the building feel like an extension of the desert floor.
  • Construction was never truly finished at Taliesin West until Wright’s death. He was constantly making alterations to the structure, some aesthetic and some structural, and never considered the structure complete. One of the main things he experimented with was light framework and what materials would be most conducive to creating a light-filled space.
  • Wright was extremely interested in film; he considered it “a form of education in the deepest meaning of the world.” Film played a central role at Taliesin West, with most of the famous aspects of the building (the Kiva and later the Cabaret-Theater) designed for the purpose of sharing film and music.

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