Frank Lloyd Wright Goes Camping!

Back Story


While visiting the Phoenix area, my wife and I decided to see Taliesin West. As a lover of most things related to architecture, it was a “no brainer.” It’s also a “must see” if you are interested in Frank Lloyd Wright, and if you have followed this blog in the past, you know that I am afflicted with “Frank Fever.”


Having lived most of my life in the Midwest, I have seen many of Wright’s architectural projects. Mason City, Iowa, is close to where I grew up, and my parents made me aware of the Stockman House and the Park Inn Hotel as Wright designs. I’ve been to Taliesin in Spring Green, and visited and photographed many other Wright buildings and viewed examples of his furniture and other assorted designs in museums so I really wanted to see Taliesin West!


Finding the place made me very thankful for Google Maps. While one might think that simply getting on Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard in Scottsdale is a simple solution to getting there, it’s only part of the story. You actually have to turn off onto a small road called Taliesin Drive, and the Taliesin signage is not very visible. However, it wasn’t a problem for us because Google Maps had it right, and I just followed the little blue dot!


Most of the structures are not easily seen from Taliesin Drive. It’s a combination of Wright’s organic architecture (things are designed to coexist with the land they are on) and the growth of desert vegetation since the buildings were originally constructed. We were directed to a parking spot and then walked a short ways to the bookstore where we purchased tickets for one of the 90-minute tours that begin every half hour. (Tour information at


Wright first visited Arizona to consult on the design and construction of the Arizona Biltmore in 1927. The architect of record, Albert Chase McArthur, hired him as a consultant because of his work with the “textile block” construction method. Chase ultimately employed a variation of this technique, the Biltmore Block, and there is an air of Frank Lloyd Wright about the building because of it. I believe that Wright’s four month stint in the Sonoran Desert opened up a new world of possibilities to him at a time when he was greatly in need of a fresh start.


Wright was always a controversial figure. Intelligent and head strong, he tended to do things his way, and his battles with clients and peers are well know as was his penchant for romantic affairs. Beginning in 1911 with the construction of the original Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, an especially tumultuous series of events rocked his life. His paramour, Mahma Cheney, her children and several others were murdered at Taliesin East and a fire tied to the event destroyed part of the structure. The early 1920s were marked by two divorces and the death of his beloved mother, a new affair with a married woman that resulted in an arrest for violation of the Mann Act, another fire at Taliesin East and an assortment of business problems. It seemed as if Wright’s life was due for a remodel – enter Arizona!


While I have no factual evidence that a light bulb went off in Wright’s head once he saw the Sonoran Desert during the Biltmore consultancy, I think there is a real probability that he saw the area as an attractive venue for a fresh start. Wright had gone to new territories before to regenerate, and the desert certainly presented a very diverse set of challenges and opportunities compared to the Midwest. It was a blank canvas of sand and rock where he could try out his organic theory of architecture and see how it fit with a desert environment, and he could do it in a place that was relatively free from the press and public scrutiny.


Wright married Olgivanna Lazovich in 1928, and they honeymooned in Phoenix. Olgivanna was a key player in the formation of the Fellowship and the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. 1932 was the first year of the Fellowship and shortly thereafter they began wintering in the Phoenix area in makeshift accommodations. By 1937 Wright purchased the land where Taliesin West now sits on the west edge of Scottsdale.


For the first few years, Wright, Olgivanna and the members of the Fellowship were basically camping out in the desert. They would travel by caravan from Wisconsin, erect canvas structures in the desert and camp. They would spend the days studying and once the land was purchased, erecting more permanent structures that would eventually become Taliesin West. Even though members of the Fellowship were paying a substantial sum to learn from the master, they were expected to work hard as laborers as well as participate in everyday chores like food preparation, site maintenance, etc. It couldn’t have been an easy existence! In the spring they would pack everything up and return to Wisconsin for the summer.


Taliesin West Today


The buildings of Taliesin West do have a flavor of “camping out” about them. For many years the buildings had canvas for a roofing material. Wright made this material choice because the white canvas would let in light. Eventually, the canvas was covered with translucent white acrylic panels. Today there is an ongoing debate as to what to do with the roofs.


The buildings have definite similarities to the majority of Wright’s creations: they are low-slung, they are meant to blend in with the land on which they reside, and they are composed of native materials. In some sense they would not be unfamiliar to native populations that inhabited the Southwest hundreds of years ago.   One of the buildings in even referred to as the “Kiva”. Another factor that visitors to other Wright sites would find familiar is the compressed entryways of some of the buildings. They seem almost “claustrophobic” as you pass through, but they lead into large, open areas that feel like a breath of fresh air. I think this is exactly what Wright wanted visitors and occupants to experience!


The docents giving the tours are extremely knowledgeable, and there is much to see and a great deal to learn about Wright, Olgivanna, the Fellowship and Taliesin West. From the ancient petroglyph carved into a rock that Wright adapted into the “Clasped Hands” logo for the Fellowship to the amazing acoustics of the Cabaret Theater, there is a great deal to learn and much to enjoy at Wright’s desert oasis called Taliesin West.




Prairie Jewel – Wright’s Park Inn Hotel

I had the opportunity to take a tour of the newly renovated and recently reopened Park Inn Hotel last week.  If you have been reading this blog over the last few months, you are aware of my intense interest in this project.  Until last week I had little direct knowledge on the interior of the hotel.  I had been amazed by the beauty and detail on the outside on my earlier visits; however, the work done on the inside is simply stunning!  A walk through the hotel is like stepping back in time 101 years. (See Slideshow at Bottom)

Originally, the hotel occupied the west end of the building; the east end was occupied by the City National Bank.  If you view the building from Central Park (across the street and directly to the north), it is fairly easy to see that there are two distinct structures.  The dividing point, known as the “waist,”  juts inward at the mid-section of the entire structure.

The Park Inn Hotel is the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright designed hotel in the world.  Not only did Wright design the building, he also designed the stained glass windows and interior pieces like the barrel chairs and the Mercury statues in the Bank/Ballroom.  Since the renovation was an historical renovation, the rework had to model the original as closely as possible.  One of the most difficult challenges was returning the bank portion back to its original two-story height.  This area had been changed into a three-story structure (see three-story photos compare to renovated bank photos) to accommodate a variety of businesses, and turning it back to the original two-story configuration was a real engineering challenge.  Another huge task involved all the stained glass windows.  Some had to be located (the large Skylight Room window was found in a Mason City home and the owners donated it), many had to be restored, and some had to be reproduced.  Fortunately, an artist capable of the restoration work was nearby.  John Larsen of Clear Lake restored or re-created 62 stained glass windows for the project.  Old photos and Wright’s drawings were consulted to aid in reproducing period furnishings such as carpet and furniture, and some original items were used as models for reproduction pieces such as the Mercury statues in the Ballroom.

So what’s original and what isn’t?  The original items include:

  • skylights in the Ballroom and the Skylight Room
  • art glass in many of the rooms and the hotel lobby
  • some of the bathroom floor tile, as well as the floor tile in the main lobby and Skylight Room
  • wood flooring, stair railings, louvered guest room doors and some of the paneling, doors, transoms and safe frame in the Law Office
  • donated Stickley pieces in Law Office are period
  • copper facia and much of the brick as well as the polychrome tile on the exterior
  • the Historic Suite is in 1910 configuration
  • clerestory window grill work (some original grill work was found in a nearby community where it was serving as a residential fence)
  • cement urns on balcony outside Ladies Parlor

Items that were reproduced include:

  • the Mercury statues in the Ballroom (one original was found and the owner allowed it to be used as the model for casting)
  • the Mezzanine balcony (the original failed within ten years and was removed)
  • the Law Office library table
  • exterior light fixtures and the Bank grill work on entry door
  • clerestory windows on Bank section
  • the ground floor cement urn at the entry into the Waist portion of the building
  • the barrel chairs were reproduced from Wright drawings.
  • billiards table is original period piece but was not original to the building

Things that have been changed, added or modernized:

  • the number of guest rooms – originally there were 40 some guest rooms; now there are 27 guest rooms (now includes third floor of bank)
  • an elevator and some new railings and ramping for accessibility and safety
  • new heating, plumbing and electrical
  • very few original furnishings remained; designers had to find correct styles of period furniture; carpeting had to be designed and manufactured
  • guest rooms now have individual bathrooms

I was fortunate to have Scott Borcherding as my tour guide.  Scott, of Bergland + Cram, was the Interior Designer on the project.  Scott was an excellent tour guide, and I gained many interesting insights about the building, others involved, and about Wright himself.  One piece of information that I found extremely interesting is that Wright completed his design in 1909 and shortly after began his affair with Mamah Cheney.  Because they ran off to Europe together, construction of the hotel and bank complex was actually supervised by Wright’s associate, William Drummond.

I am signing off for now.  I have much more to say and show about the Park Inn Hotel project, but it will have to wait until next time!  (You can learn more about the project at Wright On The Park.)

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Daily Dose: Freedom By Design

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?
– George Eliot

Add to TwitterThis quote heads the page for Freedom By Design, a caring construction group organized and run by AIAS: American Institute of Architecture Students. Participating individuals do pro bono construction work for low-income or physically disabled residents in their communities. The modest modifications made by these aspiring architects often include structures that help individuals with common mobility problems dealing with stairs and doors. The students’ site says, “Our priority is improving the safety, comfort and dignity of the home’s occupants.”

If you’d like to help further the efforts of Freedom By Design, visit their website to make a donation or lend a helping hand.

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Daily Dose: Nest Homes

Add to TwitterPatrick Dougherty’s site-specific “twig art” installations can be found all over the world. He’s constructed over 200 of these swirling, organic works since the early 1980s. Many of them take on forms of buildings and resemble homes – with a bit of a twist. Each of his structures use hundreds of saplings and are constructed using primitive methods of building. Dougherty has taken his talents to various universities as well, conducting workshops with students and faculty. Below are images from his website:

"Around the Corner"; University of Southern Indiana, 2003; Image courtesy of Doyle Dean

"Paradise Gate"; Smith College Museum of Art, 2001; Image courtesy of Stephen Petegorsky

"Close Ties"; Brahan Estate, Scottish Highlands, 2006; Image courtesy of Fin Macrae

"The Summer Palace"; University of Pennsylvania, 2009; Image courtesy of Rob Cardillo

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Daily Dose: Magdeburg Water Bridge

Add to TwitterPerhaps misleadingly described as a “concrete bathtub”, the Magdeburg Water Bridge stuns viewers with its more-than-washtub size. It’s just short of 1 km in length and required 68,000 cubic meters of concrete to create. Increased waterway reliability and capacity were the main reasons for its conception and realization. Magdeburg Bridge also offers walkways for pedestrians. Below, see a video interview by the Discovery Channel.

Click to watch Discovery's "How Stuff Works" video on the Magdeburg Bridge

The Magdeburg Bridge connects the Elbe-Havel and Mittelland canals (Berlin’s inland harbor and Rhine river ports), took six years to build, and cost a whopping 1/2 billion euros.

Interested in reading about more amazing bridges? Check out these Daily Dose entries:

Rolling Bridge
Henderson Waves
Pont du Gard

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Daily Dose: Minarets Banned

Add to TwitterOn November 29th of this year, a majority of Swiss voters opted to ban any future construction of minarets, the prayer towers that are built connected or adjacent to mosques. Though the four existing minarets will remain, the amendment to the constitution supported by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) raises some eyebrows and many deeper concerns.

The "Blue Mosque", Turkey

European countries have been struggling to assimilate Muslim immigrants over the past decades. French and German states have discussed banning the burqa (full-body covering worn by Muslim women that is considered oppressive) and the hijab (head covering worn by Muslim women, popular especially among young adults) from the workplace or school environments in an effort to minimize any political influence by these individuals. A similar sentiment was expressed by Swiss supporters of the decision to ban minaret construction. According to followers of the SVP, minarets are political symbols that indicate observance of the sharia, a Qur’an-based legal system. In actuality, they are meant to identify places of worship and serve as a daily call to prayer for Muslims, a practice that has not been instigated at any of the four minarets in Switzerland for fear of retribution.


This is not the Swiss People’s Party’s first expression of a racially-laden political agenda. Posters made by the SVP in the past have also expressed fear and hatred of an “encroaching” Muslim population. White supremacy can be clearly read from the graphic symbolism (one anti-immigration poster showed a white sheep kicking a black sheep out of the country). Their claims that minarets are symbols of a race or religion of people refusing to fully assimilate into the dominant culture may be correct – but the SVP’s assertion that this expression of identity harbingers terrorist attacks or imposing, extremist political views is absurd. What I find much more concerning are the unsettling similarities between the Swiss’ banning of mosque minarets and the German Nazis’ destruction of Jewish synagogues and temples. Fear in uncertain economic and political times is expected and understandable; however, it must not be allowed to escalate to discriminatory governmental acts.

I’d like to end with a quote from the LA Times blog in which the author disputes the claim that minarets are symbolic of a minority unwilling to participate in traditional Swiss culture.

…building a minaret in a European city is arguably the opposite of a secessionist or defiant act. When it rises among steeples and chalets in a Swiss alpine village, of course, a minaret is an expression of separation from, and maybe defensiveness against, the dominant culture. But it also signals an interest in joining the mixture of building types that make up any cityscape – in lining up in public view. If a veil steps back and is silent, a minaret steps forward and has something to say.

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Daily Dose: Building In a Bag

Add to TwitterConcrete technology isn’t necessarily something that you’d expect to be continually advancing, improving. I mean, you just add water, pour and let it set up, right? Perhaps not. Earlier in the Daily Dose, I wrote about self-healing concrete whose cracks mend after being doused with a few good rainstorms. Today, we have habitable concrete structures – or “buildings in a bag.”

Concrete Canvas Shelter

Called “concrete canvas shelters” (CCS), these hardened tent-like buildings are made of concrete cloth. Only water and air pressure are required to build CCS structures which are approximately 25 square meters and can be set up by two people without training in under an hour. The concrete cloth remains workable for two hours; the buildings themselves are ready to be used in just one day.

There are a number of factors that make concrete canvas shelters more desirable than traditional cloth-based tents. They are designed to withstand berming (sand bags, fill materials, snow), offer additional environmental protection, security, medical capabilities and insulation. CCS constructions last about ten years and are fireproof.

Concrete Cloth

The material pictured on the left is concrete cloth, a cement-impregnated fabric. In a CCS, this cloth is bonded to a plastic inner structure which is inflated by use of an electric fan. Once the structure is self-supporting, it’s anchored to the ground with pegs. Then the builder simply sprays the CCS with water, allowing the concrete to cure. Access holes can be cut into the dome-like building to allow for more versatility in function. Concrete canvas shelters have been used for disaster relief, military and commercial purposes.

Inside a CCS

I’m pretty sold on this long-lasting, easy-to-assemble solution to the need for quick, simple living spaces. After seeing the picture above, however, one question remains: can anything be hung on the walls? I’m guessing not… still, I think I’d be getting some streamers to decorate somehow!

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