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 http://www.franklloydwright.org/taliesin-west/plan-a-visit.html).

 

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.

A1-Taliesin-West

 

Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture – Sustainable or Not?

A 21st Century building project will probably not get off the ground if it isn’t tied to sustainable design, and most of us would agree, “That’s a good thing!”  But building and architecture during the late 19th and most of the 20th Century were not driven by any national push to be sustainable and environmentally friendly.  So did Frank Lloyd Wright, one of that time period’s most influential architects, build sustainability into his buildings?  It really depends on how you interpret his designs.

Wright was a major proponent of organic architecture.  This school of thought believes that architecture should reflect nature, and that organic design should put humans, and the buildings they inhabit, into a harmonious coexistence with nature.  Wright’s love for nature came, at least in part, from growing up in rural Wisconsin.  His designs sought to incorporate nearby, natural materials when possible, and to use them in a way that allowed their natural beauty to show through.  Wood wasn’t covered with paint; stone shouldn’t be plastered over; let buildings appear to be emerging from the land where they are situated.  Many of his projects, including his own home, Taliesin, used local material.  Taliesin, located on a hill overlooking the Wisconsin River, features locally quarried limestone and plaster made with sand from the banks of that river.  By using natural material obtained nearby, transportation costs and fuel use were greatly reduced.  By limiting what was painted, fewer chemicals entered the living space. both of these are sustainable practices.

Another sustainable idea Wright incorporated into many of his buildings was thermal mass walls.  This practice aims at reducing heating and cooling costs because a large volume of masonry material has the capacity to store thermal energy for extended periods of time.  Wright also used a lot of glass for natural lighting.  He combined this use of glass with a large overhang on the roof.  This large overhang did two things that align with sustainability.  First, they shaded the windows so that the building would stay cooler in the summer, and they moved moisture (in the form of rain) out and away from the windows and walls so that there was less external moisture penetration of the building envelope.

Not everything Wright designed turned out to be a study in sustainable perfection.  Often the windows designed to let in and utilize natural light, also let in the wind, cold and rain.  This happened because the union between the wall and the window was not taken into account by Wright’s design nor by his instruction and supervision; it just wasn’t that important to him.  Projects like his Freeman House, where concrete block was manufactured on site, often turned into disasters of cost overruns and product failures; good sustainable design, but poor sustainability from a supervision and implementation standpoint.  Even his architectural gem, Fallingwater, literally fell apart because of poor material and bad engineering of the cantilevered decks.

So what can we conclude about sustainability from a study of Frank Lloyd Wright?  In my opinion, he was a true architectural genius, and many of his ideas were and are good, environmentally sound, sustainable practices.  Where he failed in the realm of sustainability was in his lack of supervision and follow-through.  I get the impression that at a certain point his mind became bored with the mundane world of follow-through and follow-up.  His genius was racing on toward the next great design.  We can all take away something from this that too often rears its ugly head, even today.  All parties involved in a building project need to be involved at all stages of a project.  Everyone’s input is necessary and important, and we can’t walk away from the building process just because we are done with the design.  Does the design translate from the conceptual to the practical?  Are we on the project looking to see that our design works and is it being followed correctly?  Is the supervision on the jobsite ever-present and effective?  Are the materials we’ve specified working together properly and doing what they were marketed to do; and if not, are we making the necessary changes?  These nuts-and-bolt, mundane issues are as important to sustainability as the design itself.

Resources:

Frank Lloyd Wright:  His Philosophy of Architecture

Building Envelope Design Guide – Masonry Wall Systems

Wrights Taliesin Showcases “Organic” Architecture

USA Home and Garden:  Fallingwater

Frank Lloyd Wright overhang above many windows.