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Lessons Learned From Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West

Sunet at Taliesan West designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Jill Richards

Frank Lloyd Wright’s oasis in the desert offers calming, life-affirming design strategies that still resonate through its foundation today.

Today, June 8th, marks the 153rd anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth—and a good time to plan a visit to Taliesin West, the iconic architect’s winter home, educational facility and architectural community located in the desert of Scottsdale, Arizona. The nearly 500-acre compound—a National Historic Landmark and part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List—was founded in 1937. More than eight decades later, the site is still a calming, life-affirming oasis offering design strategies that are particularly relevant today.

Wright believed in living within your ecosystem and integrating architecture into the environment. Fast forward 100 years, and we now know that nature heals and soothes.

Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesan West

Courtesy of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). All rights reserved

“Frank Lloyd Wright had a huge respect for nature,” points out Stuart Graff, president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which is charged with preserving Taliesin West. “At Taliesin West, and with all his projects, Wright believed in living within your ecosystem and integrating architecture into the environment. Fast forward 100 years, and we now know that nature heals and soothes. Wright was ahead of his time.”

At the Taliesin West compound, Graff explains, you can see many concrete examples of the architect’s seemingly effortless design approach.

Pool design at Taliesan West by Frank Lloyd Wright

Neeta Patel / Courtesy Frank Lloyd Wight Foundation

Three pools can be seen by visitors as they tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West’s historic desert masonry buildings, all connected by patios and terraces. Near Wright’s office, a small circular fountain on a terrace serves as a link between several main buildings. Behind the drafting studio, a shallow, triangular pool reiterates the geometry of the buildings and leads the eye to the desert beyond.

Between Wright’s living quarters and the Kiva—Taliesin West’s original movie theater—a shallow, hexagonal fountain functions as a transition between private and public spaces.

“Wright used water as a visual and aural cue,” explains Graff. “He wanted people to stop, listen, breathe and relax. Flowing water is transformative and meant to give you a mental pause.”

Views of Scottsdale at Taliesan West

Jill Richards

Frank Lloyd Wright was all about the surrounding desert vistas, Graff says, but rather than installing big picture windows everywhere, the architect framed and directed views.

“The breezeway outside of the dining room focuses views of the Papago Buttes that are miles in the distance,” says Graff, “while the roofline in the drafting studio lifts up toward the McDowell Mountains directly behind Taliesin West.”

In the living room, a band of low windows is meant to give views of the adjacent garden and desert when seated on a built-in sofa, while the pergola, which connects the drafting room, Kiva and living quarters, directs the eye toward buildings in one direction, open space in the other.


Open design space by Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesan West

Andrew Pielage

Wright was a firm believer in natural daylighting, strategically placing windows, skylights and even translucent roofs in his projects to bring sunshine to interiors. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West’s office and drafting studio were originally built with taut canvas roofs (today replaced with durable acrylic panels clad with canvas), which had a tent-like ambiance and offered even, filtered light for working.

“Wright was also interested in how light plays within a space,” Graff says, “how it shifts, changes and casts shadows.”

Taliesan West by Frank Lloyd Wright

Andrew Pielage

The architect was a pioneer in blurring the line between indoors and out, employing techniques such as carrying the indoor flooring material out to terraces and patios, extending beams from indoors to out and placing floor-to-ceiling windows in rooms to link the interior to the outside.

“Wright would have loved today’s telescoping window walls,” Graff notes. But even as the architect linked inside and out, he also was fond of creating outdoor living spaces.

At the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation’s Taliesin West, a fireplace in the breezeway serves as a gathering point between the dining room and living quarters. The Sunset Terrace still is a favorite spot for afternoon tea or evening cocktails, with vast views of the city in the distance. Even the tea circle, built after Wright’s death in 1959 under the direction of his widow, Olgivanna, offers civilized seating snugged into the desert floor, near shelters designed and built by architectural students.

Taliesan West living room by Frank Lloyd Wright

Laura Novak

You won’t find soaring ceilings and vast, empty spaces within the buildings at Taliesin West imagined by Frank Lloyd Wright’s. Instead, Wright preferred to keep people comfortable within his designs, scaling size to activity. In the dining room, the ceiling is low by today’s standards, but the intimate space is meant to be used while seated and engaged in conversation.

“Wright also used something called ‘compression and release,’” Graff explains, “and the living room is a good example. You enter it through a tight, dark space with several turns before arriving in the larger, light-filled living room. He wanted to move you through the space and create a sense of journey, with a surprise at the end.”


Wright liked to live with his art, not have it stored away

Taliesan West Music Pavillion by Frank Lloyd Wright

Andrew Pielage

Look closely at different spots around Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West and you’ll see Native American petroglyphs on rocks embedded in the landscape, Chinese ceramics built into garden walls and contemporary sculpture displayed on a terrace outside the Pavilion, the 108-seat theater that’s still used today for public performances, lectures and films.

“You’ll see masterworks by European, Asian and Native American artists displayed here,” says Graff. “Wright liked to live with his art, not have it stored away. However, not all of it was fine art. He loved Japanese soda bottles and glass fishing floats as well and displayed those everyday objects like treasured pieces.”

architectural details Taliesan West Frank Lloyd Wright

Laura Novak

Perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t literally shop local as he was building Taliesin West during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, but he made use of what was on hand. The buildings’ desert masonry walls were made of stones found on site and sand dug up from the nearby washes, while roof beams were fashioned out of reclaimed redwood. Rather than recreate a replica of his original Taliesin, located in Spring Green, Wisconsin, Wright fashioned the Arizona location to reflect its surroundings.

“Wright bound the buildings to the landscape,” says Graff, “not just through the materials, but through local visual references. Here, he found inspiration in Native American symbols and in the desert, with the palettes of rocks and plants, and patterns in cactus. The dentils along the buildings’ rooflines are reminiscent of the thorns and spikes of desert plants.”

Perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned from a visit to Taliesin West? To paraphrase Frank Lloyd Wright, space is the continual becoming. “Nothing is static,” summarizes Graff. “Spaces change as the weather and seasons change, and as you move through them. Your response is limitless.”

Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Taliesan West

Courtesy of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). All rights reserved

Editor’s note: Taliesin West is currently closed and expected to re-open in early fall. In the meantime, you can visit virtually, participate in online talks and more here. Got kids? Check out the virtual architectural classes and summer camp.

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