Photography is only minimally allowed at Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter house in Arizona, Taliesin West, so most of these photographs are only exterior shots. I confess I’ve always been less impressed by FLW’s work that most are, so this post is not in praise of FLW or Taliesin West. I visited the place only experimentally, to see if it would change my mind, and though I was hoping it would, it really didn’t. It’s an interesting place, an odd place, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by its architecture or interiors or design. So much has been written about Taliesin West already that I’ll just offer this potted version: FLW had been to Arizona for work, enjoyed it, and when he began to ail in the Eastern winters his doctor prescribed months in a dry climate and Wright decided to winter in Arizona thereafter. He set up a “desert camp” near Scottsdale and over the years slowly transformed the tent camp (with the help of a lot of slave labour by students) into a built structure. This is how he derived what later because the “desert style” he was famed for, and spawned sprawling ranchers all over American cities and suburbs.
The rooms are odd, with entrances so low a tall person must stoop to enter. Wright used pony walls or sharp corners at room entrances to produce unexpected room vistas. Much of the furniture is built-in. The living room was built to accommodate fairly large parties and encourage conversation while providing a view of the desert.
Wright tried to work around the angle of the sun and the sun’s heat. In doing so it must be pointed out that he somewhat reinvented the wheel, for of course this is not the world’s first desert friendly structure by any means. But his innovations vastly influenced building styles in American’s Southwest, South and California. You can read more about Taliesin West here.
I’m not sure exactly why I find Taliesin West somewhat off-putting. It was built with local rock, among other locally available (if not local) materials, but all of the beams of imported Douglas fir are painted a sort of awful reddish brown that is all too familiar now if you’ve ever seen 70s tract housing. The whole complex is built on an obsession with the 30-60-90 triangle, which is not only deployed in roof angles but in very deco-flavoured design components including the furniture. There’s a certain pointy-ness to everything that I suppose is meant to mimic desert shapes, shapes I nevertheless didn’t identify in the surrounding hills which. The triangular deco is juxtaposed with other decorative elements including the Chinese, constructivisim, Egyptian-tinged moderne and that same sort of medieval hobbity-ness that you see in the original Taliesin and his other houses. It’s as if FLW didn’t have faith in the simplicity of his “new” architectural form and needed to explain it through decorative historical references. Which is it, function over style, or both in an arranged marriage?
As a textile person I’m always wary of the inattention to fabrics and surfaces, and the cheapness, thinness and clumsiness of the upholstered built-ins and furniture just suggest a failed concept of comfort. His celebrated “origami” armchair, each made from a simple sheet of plywood, is awkward and uncomfortable, as are the rooms in general. Bedouin desert camps seem far more comfortable and visually pleasing than this. The manicured green lawns in the desert, and an angular over-slick pool, just suggest resistance to the environment rather than Wright’s much-discussed sensitivity to the landscape. Methinks the exaggeratedly rough, ugly mortaring of the local stone doth protest too much. The traditional European-style sculptures in cast bronze plonked everywhere are either an apology or corrective or I am not sure what. Parts of the place seemed a distracting, uncomfortable jumble verging on kitsch.
My sincere apologies to those whose architectural pantheons FLW presides over like a deity or gargoyle. I may just be trapped behind a giant wall of aesthetic prejudice built inadvertently by the commercial developers who subsequently riffed off Wright in lazy tract settlements all over America.
I have tried to photograph the place as flatteringly as possible, to make up for my criticism. But even so I can barely look at these photos without cringing.
Above, a classical bronze sculpture half out of Lord of the Rings, plonked next to standing rock cemented into odd rock plinth. Below, quite a lovely red Chinese door oddly mixed into local rock somewhat swamped by rough mortar. I admit I like the triangular glass surround for that door. But of all FLW’s reds in the complex, that Chinese red was the only one that worked for me, and for me colour is inordinately important.
Above, the dinner cabaret room. Supposedly built for comfort but I didn’t find it that way. Its acoustics however are absolute genius. No parallel walls to produce sound reflection or any phase cancellation. Just superb. Apparently FLW’s wife used it to her advantage, being able to hear all whispered gossip at every table, or so our guide told us.
Above, brutalist, concrete round window decorated with multiple chinoiseries.
Above, an illegal shot showing the interior of the drafting room, jammed full of the desks where FLW’s students laboured. Below, my favourite object at TW: a doorknob in the bathroom.