Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright

Taliesin West

Photography is only minimally allowed at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, his winter house in Arizona, so most of these photos are just exterior shots. It seems to be a form of sacrilege to admit to not being a fan of FLW’s work, but I’ve never been as impressed by him as others are and Taliesin West provided a good example of why. I visited it only experimentally to see if it would change my mind. I was hoping it would, but it didn’t. It’s a strange place, and I could appreciate it for eccentricity alone, but for me even the eccentricity failed to come together. I was underwhelmed by its architecture, its interiors or general design.

So much has been written about Taliesin West already that I’ll just offer this potted history: 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 spend winters in Arizona. He set up a “desert camp” near Scottsdale and over the years slowly transformed the tent camp (with the help of a lot of quasi-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 compound is now an unresolved mix of ad hoc camp and inexplicable over-refinement, as well as purported attempts at comfort and congeniality mixed with a deliberate angularness and latent hostility.

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 apparently tried to work around the angle of the sun. There’s a laudable attempt at passive solar architecture and sensitivity to context, though of course in terms of traditional vernacular desert architecture he’s reinventing the wheel. Nevertheless, the innovations he made here influenced building styles in American’s Southwest, South and California. You can read more about Taliesin West here.

I’m not exactly sure why I find Taliesin West so off-putting. Some of the ideas are good; maybe it’s the execution. 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 cringeworthy reddish brown that is all too familiar now if you’ve ever seen 70s tract housing. The whole complex is based on the 30-60-90 triangle, which is not only deployed in roof angles but in very art deco-flavoured design components including the furniture. There’s a certain pointiness to everything that I suppose is meant to mimic desert shapes, shapes I nevertheless didn’t identify in the surrounding hills. The triangular deco is juxtaposed with other decorative elements including the Chinese, constructivism, Egyptian-tinged moderne (related to the then-recent Egyptian tomb discoveries) 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 or localness of his “new” architectural form and needed to explain it through imported decorative historical references. Which is it, function over style, or both in an arranged marriage?

As a textiles craftsperson I’m annoyed by inattention to fabrics and surfaces, and the cheapness, thinness and clumsiness of the upholstered built-ins and furniture just suggest a failed or passive-aggressive concept of comfort. The weird square cushions on all the blocky chairs look as if they belong in a reading nook in an underfunded kindergarten built with parent labour. 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 the angular over-slick swimming pool all suggest resistance to the environment rather than Wright’s much-discussed sensitivity to the landscape. In this context the exaggeratedly rough, ugly mortaring of the local stone seems to be making a point—this is just a camp!—more than actually being a natural product of unskilled labour. The refined, traditional European-style sculptures in cast bronze plonked everywhere are a corrective or an apology for the sins of the rough architecture. Or I am not sure what. And parts of the place seemed a distracting, uncomfortable jumble of knick knacks verging on kitsch.

My sincere apologies to those over whose architectural pantheons FLW presides like a deity—or gargoyle. I may just be trapped behind a giant wall of aesthetic prejudice inadvertently built by the commercial developers who riffed off Wright in lazy tract settlements all over America. But I’m not sure.

I tried to photograph the place as flatteringly as possible, to make up for my criticism. Even so, I can barely look at these photos without cringing. It all just makes me feel the visual equivalent of chewing tinfoil.

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

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 (and he likes red), that Chinese red was the only one that worked for me. But the combination! Was he colour blind? Perhaps he was.

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Above, the dinner cabaret room. Supposedly built for comfort but I didn’t find it that way. Those horrifying red hexagonal chairs! Its acoustics however are absolute genius. No parallel walls to produce sound reflection or any phase cancellation. Just superb. Apparently FLW’s wife, who was interested in control, used it to her advantage as she was able to hear all whispered gossip at every table, or so our guide told us.

Taliesin West

Above: brutalist, concrete round window decorated with multiple types of chinoiserie. Below: that awkward slant, that awful temporary-looking roof, the mortaring that almost looks like a form of defacement… everything about it makes me want to knock it down and rebuild it properly. The white with the colours of that rock mixed with Eastcoast barn red…

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

What is going on here, colour-wise? And angles-wise? That red with that iron-orange? Why? And the proportions are all wrong. It’s a style of architecture I want to call the Community Centre School.

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Above, an illegal shot showing the interior of the drafting room, jammed full of the desks where FLW’s students laboured in what were apparently a range of physically uncomfortable temperatures. Below, to end this post on a more charitable note, is my favourite object at TW: a beautiful doorknob in the gift shop bathroom.

Taliesin West

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15 Responses to “Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright”

  1. Steve Says:

    It may be helpful to note that Wright’s desert camp was built starting in 1937, some 75 years ago. Both inside and outside spaces were defined by the rubble walls and terraces, and the rough-sawn redwood beams (not doug fir) were originally hung with canvas. It was a campsite, originally intended to be seasonal. But the canvas was eventually replaced by glass and translucent panels, and into this rugged frame Wright incorporated built-in furniture, enclosed gardens, and his extensive collection of Asian art and sculpture.

    The result is often considered one of the finest examples of the integration of building, landscaping, furniture, and site, a virtually unparalleled merging of interior and exterior. Taliesen West is one of 17 FLW buildings designated by the American Institute of Architects to be retained for its significant contribution to American culture. It is frequently named one of the most influential examples of modern architecture in North America. It is a U.S. National Historic Landmark and is being considered for World Heritage Status.

    So it’s curious that you were not impressed by Taliesen West’s “architecture or interiors or design” and find Wright’s work ‘hobbity’ (?). A few overly-compressed entries and uncomfortable chairs aside, Taliesen West is a marvel to most visitors … even those who consider Wright a mere mortal.

    A thorough review of Taliesen West is available from the U.S. National Park Service ( http://pdfhost.focus.nps.gov/docs/NHLS/Text/74000457.pdf ), and info about touring is on the FLW Foundation website ( http://www.franklloydwright.org/web/Home.html ).

  2. LB Says:

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks very much for your comment. I do understand that history and am familiar with Wright’s reputation, and had I not been, the 90-minute house tour (which is excellent by the way) would have enlightened me. The thing is, I do feel Wright’s reputation and legacy are already well-covered, and I don’t think my dissent will have much effect on either. There is far more Wright celebration than criticism out there, both in print and online. I’ve long tried to come around to an appreciation of Wright’s work, and yet somehow I remain unmoved.

    A few specifics – our guide, an architect, specifically identified the beams as Douglas Fir. They may well have been redwood originally, and in fact I think he may have mentioned that the redwood was eaten by bugs – redwood is just as vulnerable in that desert ecology as Doug fir, I expect, and no doubt the reason for that reddish brown paint is insect protection. As for the house’s reputation, I would point out that the majority aren’t always right, even among architects. As a designer myself I’ve never liked Wright’s furniture much, either in appearance or function. I did a poll of my artist friends who had visited TW (as well as some of those who took the tour with us in December) and it’s actually surprising how much dissent there is from the Wright hagiography. I do find his work very hobbity in many different ways, whether he’s using wood (a Welsh/celtic/William Morris feel) or stone. I don’t want to be a tearer-downer, but there doesn’t seem to be much point in not expressing an opinion, and I think there ought to be room for disagreement. In any case Wright’s position in history is secured and he, in his grave, has nothing to fear from anyone. While I recognize the importance of his innovations, I just don’t, in 2012, feel much for the results. But I really appreciate your addition to the conversation.

    I wish we would more often recognize how often house-builders reinvented the wheel in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, specifically regarding building for coolness in summer and warmth in winter, passive solar heating, and other forms of sensitivity to environment and local materials. There are so many examples of ancient houses that function as well as Taliesin West in all these parameters. And many of them are, to me, more elegant. Japan, Greece, Morocco, India, the list is long.

    Final admission: I am inordinately bothered by finishes and colour. I had the intense desire to clear out the sculptures, repaint the wood a more appropriate colour, improve the quality of all the textiles, remove some of the ubiquitous, occult-seeming triangles, exchange the reflective panels with something less cheap, and see what happened. I realize the point of some of the experimentation related to Wright’s effort to build better inexpensive American housing – the whole Usonian project – but if we’re talking cost-effectiveness, shouldn’t materials and finishes improve over time rather than be throwaway? All those built-ins, covered in custom-made, unwashable upholstery – that’s not even cost-effective from the beginning. Unless you’ve got an army of unpaid female interns to make them in the first place..

  3. Steve Says:

    Thanks for your reply, LB. Perhaps you would have enjoyed the three-hour tour I took better. Actually, I’m glad you’ve shared your personal impressions and definitely wouldn’t want to limit dissent. It’s more a matter of both/and. I thought your readers would benefit from knowing just how contrarian your views are. 🙂

    But I think you’re well in the mainstream when criticizing Wright’s furniture (they say his barrel chair is the only comfortable piece). His taste for triangles and ‘non-ornamental’ ornament is also lost on me. The hagiography, as you say, is also tedious, most espeically when the stern and vindictive Olgivanna is painted in the same golden glow.

    As to your point about the quality of the finishes and materials (since you’re apparently unmoved by great architecture and design), have you visited any of Wright’s work that wasn’t experimental or done on a shoestring? What other Wright buildings have you visited?

  4. LB Says:


    Sorry for not replying earlier; I noticed your reply when more recent comments appeared. In person I’ve only seen the Guggeneheim and Fallingwater and Ennis house (only from the outside). I guess I’d just like say that I can recognize an architect for innovation, vision and iconoclasm without liking his/her work itself. Wright clearly paved the way for development of new architecture in America (despite coating all his buildings with William Morris or European deco or Pre-Colombian or whatever finishings). But while I recognize his contribution, as does the AIA, I am making a more simple point. I simply dislike his aesthetics, and wouldn’t want to live in any of the houses based on what I’ve seen. I’d want to gut them, work with the bones, refinish. By way of contrast I would love to live in Aalto’s Villa Mairea as is. The sensitivity extends to the use of materials in every way, the wood, the textiles – it’s like the difference between a stage set and a real house meant for humans. Lastly, on a slightly different note, I was in NYC for one of the Guggenheim’s anniversaries and they were running an exhibit on the history of the building. The way it looks today, the clean white snail that I love from the outside, is entirely the doing of Solomon Guggenheim. Have you seen FLW’s drawings? It’s a decorative, pink folly. I can’t find one of the more decorative versions online but I’m sure you’ve seen this: http://architecture.about.com/od/museum1/ss/Guggenheim-Color.htm
    Solomon’s the one who pared it down and I believe his solution was superior. To me the exhibit was really instructive.

  5. janki gonawal Says:

    hi LB

    i want to tell you something about quality of the finishes and material of TW. as you found it very much normal in functional parameters like.. ” building for coolness in summer and warmth in winter, passive solar heating, and other forms of sensitivity to environment and local materials…” so my question is dont you think so that even the quality of finishes…is also normal…so what that its does not look sharp and clean??…
    i mean there are rules that every rubble masonry should be clean …why cant we take it as expression of that building …or god knows there can be something in designer mind while making it rough …that in controlled way.
    i think u should visit that place again and try to experience it the way it is ..

    hey the next thing i would like to know something about the dinner cabaret room, i found that it has very interesting ceiling ..can u explain wat kind of material is used over there ?

    hope i can get your answer sooner.

  6. LB Says:

    Hi Janki, I guess to me the place felt like an awkward transplant into the desert, and the shabbiness of some of the materials was of the wrong brand of shabbiness – it was the kind of shabbiness you get when the wrong material is used in an environment, or when you’re trying to make a point with a material. If you’re being so rough with the mortaring for instance, make sure your shapes can tolerate that roughness and look good in the context of your rigid geometries. I guess maybe I’m going on my experience of seeing desert architecture in the Middle East, India and Africa, where I never had this sensation of unresolved hodgepodge. There, buildings seemed to emanate out of the place and be perfectly suited to it, while at the same time exciting surprise or awe. I found Taliesin West to have the feeling of an impractical import, an experiment replete with a triangular Hollywood-style pool surrounded by manicured lawns, kitschy bronzes on pedestals next to giant rafters coated in cheap red paint destined to peel immediately… More than anything it felt to me like a coastal building plonked in an Arizona rockfield. The odd angular deco components seemed yet another awkward transplant, and not resonating for me with the place, even by contrast. It all just felt like manifest destiny going too fast.

    I’m not trying to be contrary. I just genuinely find the place awkward, trying too hard to be both grand and rough yet achieving neither. I also felt I was visiting the heart of a religion, everyone true believers except for me. I don’t mind reverence when it seems warranted – I just got home from Jaipur – but at Taliesein West I felt was almost considered sacrilege not to ooh and aah no matter how you felt. And I just wasn’t feeling it.

  7. janki Says:

    hi ,
    hank you for your reply, first of all i want to tell you that i am not against or i am not follower of FLW. now if you are going in this direction i would like to incorporate some other element like limitation of materials and maintenance. you may right at judging the type of the materials which are used. but i think there are no rules for form of the building and shape of the water-body.
    and you were talking about jaipur, some how even i belong to desert part of the india, somehow i belong to kutch and i have seen some odd angles of roof and balcony and many other elements. and those buildings are really working well in that hot and dry climate.
    one of my question about the dinner cabaret room is still there.

  8. LB Says:

    I don’t remember that ceiling, Janki! Do you have a photo? Are you talking about the theatre? And I do think local materials could have been used better.

  9. janki Says:

    i am talking abut this one.

  10. LB Says:

    Ah, yes. The fairy lights were nice. On a rock ceiling heavily coated in mortar that has been scored into lines. That’s all I can tell you. Again I’m puzzled by the seemingly deliberate clumsy mortaring everywhere; I’m sure there’s an elaborate explanation for it. I found it jarring, so clumsy as to seem to be making a point. Especially when juxtaposed with all the highly finished, imported Asian elements (doors, sculpture). I’ve been in village/desert environments all over the world and never seen Fred Flintstone mortaring like this. What’s it’s function? It has the look of someone making a point about mortaring, not solving an actual functional problem. I don’t know. But I felt the same way about the rest of the finishing as well as furniture: crappy presentation in a room with unbelievably superior acoustics. That’s the weird thing about FLW for me; the underlying superiority of the basic structure, jarringly juxtaposed with a distinctly un-pleasing resolution in materials, colour, aesthetic. I can’t shake the sensation it’s an affectation. I think Wright liked what he was doing, and I suspect he was internally conflicted about tradition.

    Underlying form seems to be at war with the finishing, as if he didn’t think humans (including himself) could handle the new forms without an overlay of something historically familiar, like ancient Egypt/deco, while also pulling against that with slapdash rock wall construction. I’m trying to focus on function not form here, but the forms and aesthetics in his work (not just Taliesin West) are so dominating for me, so badly resolved that I start to lose faith in its functional superiority too.

    Compare: http://blog.ounodesign.com/2009/06/20/aaltos-villa-mairea-in-finland/

    PS I wanted to just add that I don’t believe the failures (in my view) are due to the ad hoc nature of the site, the fact that it started as a camp, or the poverty of the budget. I actually think sometimes that the more money you apply to a project, the worse the result, so perhaps the more funds he applied to the site, the worse it got. I’d like to have seen it in its early days. I just don’t believe he understood his own creation well enough to finish it successfully at all. What was most cheap were his own secret aesthetic commitments.

  11. janki Says:

    i think i get my answer, thank you sir.

  12. LB Says:

    It’s ma’am. But I kind of enjoyed being called sir. 🙂

  13. Steve Says:

    Thanks, LB. I’ll keep my eye out for the next tour of Wright’s Tracy house, just south of Seattle, or the Brandes house just east. I wonder if you’d find his aesthetic more palatable when the work wasn’t being done by apprentices and on a shoestring. Probably the best home I’ve seen — that is, the most livable as-is — is the Johnson house in Racine WI, now home of the Johnson family foundation. It’s of the era, showing both modern and deco features, but the space (and finishes) are quite stunning.

    Thanks again for your site and your thoughtful posts. Cheers!

  14. LB Says:

    Thanks! And I’d love to see pics if you go. Full disclosure – I’m not a fan of either deco or Arts & Crafts, so that gets in the way of my appreciating Wrights’s houses.

  15. janki Says:

    as i have mention earlier that i am a student of architecture,and with the same reason i addressed you as a sir.

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