Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Arizona - Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, Scottsdale

"Who is your favourite architect, and do you even know more than one?" asks our guide during a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home in Scottsdale Arizona called Taliesin West.  While it's true that most people including myself can't name many architects other than maybe Frank Gehry and Antoni Gaudi, it does not diminish our admiration of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Rich and I first saw his work in Oak Park, Chicago where we visited the homes that he built for his mother and first wife.  It was clear that Wright was a genius and visionary way ahead of his time, especially when looking at the homes that he built side by side with the traditional Victorian houses of the time.  His work from the 1890s still look modern today, and must have looked like something from outer space to the people of his time.  It was also clear from that tour that he was an egotist and control freak, designing not only the architecture, but the interior finishings and furniture, and even his wife's clothes!

The tour of Taliesin West served only to reinforce those initial impressions of Frank Lloyd Wright.  The initial building of this name is situated in Wisconsin. Later in life, Wright decided to spend his winters in a warm, dry climate,  and therefore built Taliesin West for himself and his third wife Olga.  Both homes were built using his principles of "organic architecture" in which the architectural design blends in with its natural setting and makes use of its natural resources.  Taliesin West incorporates the rocks and wood of the area and is built at the base of the McDowell mountains, surrounded by desert cactus.

Some common themes ran through the building.  Triangles were a dominant motif and could be found in decorations, lighting fixtures, and a pair of swinging "icicles" hung in front to remind Wright of his Wisconsin life.  Many of the ceilings and doors were unusually low and the tour guide gave very interesting theories about why this was.  Frank Lloyd Wright was a relatively short man who thought "tall people were weeds and a waste of material to build for".  By creating structures with low ceilings and doors, he both made himself look and feel taller, as well as humbled taller people (who probably made him feel inferior) by forcing them to stoop and sit, and therefore bend to his will.  Similarly, his living room was filled with uncomfortable furniture, some immoveably affixed to the walls.  We were told that this was to prevent people from rearranging his design, and also to discourage guests to his home from staying too long.  It was then pointed out that ironically, Wright himself did not sit on his own furniture but always used a old comfy chair that was obviously not of his design.

Wright's bedroom featured both a napping bed and a sleeping bed since he felt these were totally different functions.  The napping bed was exposed to the library portion of the room, while the sleeping bed was tucked away behind a screen against a wall.

His gardens were filled with Asian sculptures (one of his passions, along with cars, pianos and women) including Rich's favourite, which was a Dragon that initially spouted water but was repurposed to be a "fire breathing dragon" as shown in this photo I found on the internet.

 Taliesin West was turned into an architectural school that still runs today.  Students would pay $30,000 per year for the right to study there.  This included room and board, although the "room" was often actually a tent since in order to learn about organic architecture, one must be in tune with the natural surroundings.  One of the main principles of the school was "learn by doing" so each student was required to design and build a structure on the site, either by modifying an existing structure from a previous student, or building a new one from scratch.

One of the students of the school, Heloise Crista, was a talented sculptor and there are multiple busts that she created of Frank Lloyd Wright scattered througout the rooms.  There is also an outdoor sculpture garden filled with her work.

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