“And thou, America,” the passage begins, “thou too surroundest all, embracing, carrying, welcoming all, thou too by pathways broad and new approach the ideal.”
Created under the direction of iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1950s, “Whitman’s Square,” as it is now known, forces visitors to turn their backs on the significant group of buildings known as Taliesin West and instead take in the commanding view of the Valley of the Sun. “It’s what Wright wanted you to see first,” says Jeff Goodman, spokesman for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
Photo by Andrew Pielage
Wright, his wife Olgivanna, and their architectural apprentices started traveling to Arizona from Taliesin, the architect’s home and studio in Wisconsin, back in the 1920s while consulting on the Arizona Biltmore hotel and other projects. When Wright suffered a near-fatal bout of pneumonia around age 70, his doctor told him escaping the harsh Midwest winters would add 20 years to his life. As he was familiar with Arizona, moving permanently to the Valley was a natural choice.
In 1937, he settled on the 160 acres on which Taliesin West now sits, saying it felt like he was looking out over the rim of the world, and that the desert landscape reminded him of the ocean floor, with the cholla and ocotillo resembling coral and seaweed.
“Look at this incredible nature we have here. Wright’s organic architecture was about building in one with nature. That’s what inspired him to build Taliesin West, which just grows right out of the desert,” Goodman says.
Photo by Andrew Pielage
Over time, he acquired approximately 600 acres in the area. He and his apprentices began to craft and build a desert “camp.” Buildings on the site, constructed between 1938 and the mid-1950s, consisted of a drafting room, kitchen, dining room, living quarters, Wright’s office and more. There was also a half-submerged underground chamber based on the dwelling of the Pueblo Indians, known as the “Kiva,” and a larger playhouse called the Cabaret Theater.
Photo by Andrew Pielage
It was said when you came to Taliesin West in Wright’s day you were supposed to bring “a sleeping bag and a tuxedo”—the former because you would likely overnight in a tent in the desert; the latter to participate in the lavish parties held in the evenings, often frequented by Hollywood celebrities, Valley dignitaries, and other VIP friends of Wright’s.
Wright used Taliesin West as an architecture lab where he experimented with materials, forms and technology. Rocks were culled from the site, redwood was used for beams, and canvas for roofing material. His concepts—such as the open floor plan, large banks of windows with mitered corners, and the use of natural light—are all familiar to us today, but back then were considered quite radical. Furniture was even arranged to encourage interaction with the outside, with nature. While other architects of the day were emulating European design, Wright eschewed that to create a uniquely American style of architecture.
“It could exist nowhere else except the Sonoran Desert in Scottsdale, Arizona, and is one of the most significant pieces of architecture in the world.”
“It changed the way we relate to nature around us and the environment,” says Goodman, “and ultimately provided us much more beautiful ways of living and more opportunity for happiness.”
Frank Lloyd Wright did indeed prolong his life by 20 years (21, to be exact) after his move to Arizona—and those last two decades ended up being the most prolific of his career, when he created approximately a third of his life’s work.
Taliesin West is a not-to-be-missed Arizona treasure—a National Historic Landmark that is also nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with several other Wright sites in the U.S.).
“Taliesin West is truly iconic,” says Goodman. “It could exist nowhere else except the Sonoran Desert in Scottsdale, Arizona, and is one of the most significant pieces of architecture in the world.”
Photo by Andrew Pielage
A variety of tours of the site is offered, varying in length and scope, with full descriptions and reservation information available at the Foundation’s website. In addition to the tours, the Foundation has committed to again utilizing Taliesin West as the “living laboratory” it was intended to be, including hosting cocktail parties on the Sunset Terrace, private dinners, and music and theatrical performances in the Music Pavilion, Cabaret Theater, and throughout the site.
On June 7, the Foundation will wrap up what has been a year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birth—just part of their ongoing mission to honor the legacy of the forward-looking architect who was constantly growing, constantly changing. “What kind of person, 150 years after his birth, can continue to inspire people?” says Goodman. “To me, that’s what makes Wright an icon. He’s timeless. We continue to use his spaces and his legacy to innovate how we build and live, inspiring people to think outside the box and do things differently.”
Wright often branded many of the buildings he designed by embedding a small red ceramic tile bearing his signature somewhere on the façade. At Taliesin West, the tile is just to the left of the entrance to the Garden Room—the private residence—just to the right of a Chinese sculpture.
THERE ARE DRAGONS:
Those who go on an evening tour may just see a fire-breathing dragon! The metal beast was given to Wright’s wife, Olgivanna, by a former apprentice. While it was intended to be used as a fountain, Mrs. Wright declared that no self-respecting dragon would spit water. So, it was fitted with a gas line and now spews flames—far more befitting!
Be sure to look up when you’re near the rock-faced tower close to the Taliesin entrance. There, embedded in the cement about a third of the way down, is a hammer—no doubt tossed into the mold by a mischievous young apprentice back in the 1930s or ’40s.
When you stroll through the grounds of Taliesin West, notice the shadows. Wright intentionally played with natural light and shadows, making those elements as much a part of the architecture as anything else. The shapes move and change depending on the time of day and the season, providing a fascinating and well-planned art form in itself.
See how many Midway Garden Sprites you can find on the property. The original cement sprites were created in collaboration with Italian sculptor Alfonso Iannelli for a Chicago project around 1917, known as Midway Garden. The business failed after the Depression and was demolished. Only three original Garden Sprites are known to have survived—two are at Taliesin West and the third is at a private residence. But you’ll see many more replicas of the beautiful sprites, of varying sizes, around the grounds.
FAR EAST FACTOR:
Many don’t realize Wright was not only a big fan of Asian art, but was also one of the biggest dealers of Asian art in the United States at one time. Keep an eye out for Asian influences at Taliesin West, including Chinese ceramic pieces, which were purchased by Wright with flaws, but used intentionally to illustrate the beauty of the imperfect. Wright installed them throughout the property to signal transitioning from one space to another.