Saturday, March 24, 2012

Taliesin West and Frank Lloyd Wright

When I attended Michigan State back in the middle third of the last century I was fascinated and drawn to the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. For some reason his residential architecture spoke to me. His use of clean lines, long roof lines, and even the concept of his Prairie Architecture captivated a young scholar trying to understand architecture and urban design. His life titillated me, his iconoclastic view of himself attracted me, and his unbending belief in pure extrapolative design struck home. I made pilgrimages to Fallingwater in 1967, his homes in Chicago (Robie House, Oak Park, and his studio), and especially Spring Green, Taliesin East near Madison, Wisconsin. In 1970 I finally made a trip west to see Taliesin West, the Marin Civic Center, and a gift shop on Maiden Lane.
The Master
Last Monday I again visited Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. In the mid-1930s, after Wright received his commission for Fallingwaters (a princely sum of about $7,500 – now you know why you don’t want your sons (and daughters) to grow up to be architects) he found a square mile of desert north of the small town of Phoenix and just outside the four corners that called itself Scottsdale. No water, no electricity, and no road; the 620 acres were just desert and mountain foothills. He came for his health, stayed only in the winters and summered in Spring Green and Wisconsin (summer in Wisconsin and no air conditioning? not sure Scottsdale is that much worse). Then, and through the rest of his life, Wright would need money. He was always short, overran his budgets, and lived very well with a simple, yet expensive, lifestyle. He knew no other way.

Taliesin Studio
In the early 1930s Wright had the idea of a school where he could teach his beliefs about architecture. It would also be a way to make some desperately needed income. After the Arizona purchase he began the annual treks that continued until his death in 1959: summer in Wisconsin, winter in Arizona. The students would caravan back and forth, spend the winters living in tents (they still do today), and under his direction build the classrooms and living quarters. Today Taliesin West is still an accredited architecture school with strong parallel courses in the arts and music, civility, and style. These were the things that Wright loved most during his long life of 91 years.

Residential Wing and Pool

The house and grounds, both in Wisconsin and Scottsdale are under the care and management of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Both are under continuing improvement and preservation, a tough task in both locations considering the weather extremes. Tens of thousands of visitors come each year to learn about this man and his vision for both architecture and America. More has been written about this man and his architecture than any architect that has lived.
Taliesin's sharp angles refect the desert and FLW's love of forms
But time and progress move irrepressibly forward. The campus still is framed by desert and mountains to the north, but to the east, south and west are homes and commercial developments right up to the fence line of the property. In 1930 Scottsdale had 1047 residents, today (and not during spring training), the town has 217,385 residents. It has almost tripled its population since the last time I visited Taliesin in 1973 with my wife. Scottsdale Blvd is all bright and shiny with grand properties, hotels, golf courses, and the latest in architectural fashions. I say fashion because it seems that architecture has lost its heart. It is now grand international firms, grand voices, and grand corporate dreams. Residential architecture now screams with cacophony and schizophrenic behavior. Detail and artifice are gone. Sure there are a few fleeting moments of style and transformation (see Santiago Calatrava), but the rest seems ego driven bungling and politics, witness the sad events of the World Trade Center of the last ten years. Architecture is an art, often populated with the egos and creativity found in the more mundane worlds of oil paints and violins. We will never see the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright again.

Calatrava's Milwaukee Museum Addition

Stay tuned . . . .

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