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Visiting Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West

On a recent visit to Arizona, I took a side field trip to the famous homestead of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural foundation, Taliesin West.

Just east of Sedona lies Taliesin West, the home, studio, museum, and the land of this organic architect who set completely new standards in the world of architecture at that time and for the future.

Born in Wisconsin, June 8, 1867, Wright spent his early years studying architecture and engineering with six years in the prestigious firm of Adler and Sullivan, formulating his beginning groundwork. After these formative years, he honed his design style that he believed would become American Prairie homes.

Wright was always on the cutting edge and was constantly learning more techniques for his architectural design skills.

In the thirties, he set sail to Europe to study the international building forms that had taken shape over the centuries. Shortly after returning to the states, he was awarded a contract to design the famous Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan, and a landmark structure in his creativeness.

Another of Wright's unique structures is Fallingwater in Pennsylvania. A home cantilevered over a cascading rock waterfall with layered elevations on this challenging building site. The design looks like the building grew out from the land with a forest of trees all around. He was also very influential in the Los Angeles area and designed the HolyhockHouse and Olive Hill for the oil heiress Aline Barnsdall.

Another magnificent Southern California building was designed by Wright's son Llyod Wright, the Wayfarers Chapel in Palos Verdes, which I visited as a youngster. That experience of seeing the glass and wooden beam building sunk deep into my soul and encouraged me to appreciate the blending of nature, the site, and structure for my own creative landscape architecture world.

Wright had some health issues and was advised by his doctors to leave the Pennsylvania area and find a drier climate. He migrated westward into Arizona's Sonoran desert and created his homesite, titled Taliesin West, just outside Sedona.

He purchased the initial 800 acres for $3.50 per acre and developed his studio amongst the rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, saguaro, and cholla cacti located in Paradise Valley.

Every winter, Wright and his architectural students traveled west to carve a magical foundation site for his winter camp and desert laboratory studio. Later, it became the famous Taliesin West Foundation, visited by people worldwide.

Wright felt this was the perfect spot for his winter home and a place for his business and a homestead to learn from with raw nature all about in the natural and rugged rocky terrain.

This would become the winter haven for Wright and his students to make architectural magic happen through his organic principles and thinking outside of the box.

The students would bring their families to camp outside in tents in the beginning years. There was no water, no electricity. Their meals were cooked by campfire and it was a true communal adventure for all these young families, having an experience of a lifetime in the creation of Taliesin West along with Wright's vision.

The site for this monumental structure was a mesa at the base of the McDonnel Mountain range, which was the source for all the boulders, rocks, stones, and sand used in building the foundations walls, and the theme materials to create Wright's dream project.

Students excavated and dug all the indigenous materials in the cool winter months, to be one of the world's most classic buildings built with local materials. It's like it grew out of the side of the mountain and looks like it is grafted to the earth on this unique building site.

The labor team of students would climb the hillside just behind the site, removing the precious stone materials for the construction along with heavy equipment of that time, and lower the boulders down the mountainside to the building plateau below.

Wooden building frames were constructed per Wright's design, and the stones were set inside the large foundation forms. Then, a wet slurry of concrete was poured into the forms to build the foundation for walls, caves, rooms, pools, patios, and structural support elements. The walls of these shapes were of the rusty, copper, and golden tones of the desert that fit right into the indigenous landscape of the area.

In the diggings from the mountainside, native petroglyphs were discovered. They became architectural art pieces placed at key outdoor locations for viewing and to appreciate the history and heritage of the land.

Wright always believed in using local materials to lessen the footprint of importing building materials from afar, reducing the carbon footprint on the earth in many of his global projects. The natural desert light also played a central ingredient in his marriage of nature and the building. It became a key design feature throughout Taliesin West, with large bay openings looking out into the wild desert scenery.

There were many unique rooms and wings throughout the compound, with small sleeping lofts, musical theatres, lounges, kitchens, a long design studio, and expansive patios, pools, gardens, and surprises around each corner as I toured the complex.

Wright designed the furniture for Taliesin, and his students were involved in the building of chairs, tables, cabinets, weaving fabrics, art glass, lighting, rugs, and assorted items used throughout Taliesin West.

In his eighties, he turned his energy to traveling, giving lectures, and writing prolifically with a library of books. However, he still had his hand and ideas on his ongoing projects and would return to oversee the construction of the Guggenheim Museum in New York many times.

Wright believed his architecture would be genuinely transformative and devoted his life to creating a total aesthetic that would enhance society's well-being and said, "Buildings are like people, and we must be sincere and must be true in nourishing the lives of those within them."

Another quote from Wright is: "The mission of an architect is to help people understand how to make life more beautiful, the world a better one, and a fuller meaning to life."

Many of Wright's 1100 structures dot the globe, and he was an architect like no other. I feel blessed to have visited four of his creations so far.

So, if I have piqued your interest, it's only a day's drive over to Taliesin West, outside of Sedona, Arizona, but you must make reservations for the guided tours. And be sure to enjoy the artsy community of Sedona while in the area, for both are differently an E-ticket in my opinion.

Roger Boddaert, "Maker of Natural Landscapes," can be reached for landscape designs and garden coaching at 760-728-4297.


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