What better way to kick off retirement than a vacation? Or, as Eric pointed out, a vacation for him, but just a trip for me. A couple of our friends recently have moved to a retirement community near Tucson, AZ. We could hear the desert calling—as well as the offer of a few nights’ free lodging. Eric and I love the Southwest, so this was an easy decision.
Our itinerary started in Phoenix because I wanted to show Eric a few places that I’d enjoyed in the past, but he’d never seen. Our first stop was Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and studio, Taliesin West. (We’ve visited Taliesin, his Wisconsin residence, twice.)
When I first visited Taliesin in the 1980s, it seemed far from town, in the middle of the desert. It’s still in the middle of the desert on nearly a square mile of land, but town has caught up. Scottsdale’s residential communities, swimming pools, and golf courses press against its borders. But when you’re there, you’re in another world.
The driveway wound uphill until Scottsdale faded from view … and we entered a world of rustic rock walls and signature red paint.
Wright and his architectural apprentices began building Taliesin West in 1937. Using materials found on the site, they placed flat rock faces against plywood forms, then filled in with smaller rocks and concrete. (Can you imagine hauling these big rocks out of the desert with the sun beating down?) Our tour guide credited Wright for coining the terms “one-man rock,” “three-man rock,” etc. for measuring rock size, but I have not been able to corroborate that.
The logo is thought to have been influenced by a petrograph on the site that resembles clasped hands.
We entered here, going down the stairs to the gift shop to buy our tickets.
Our tour guide ushered us into Wright’s office, through a classically-Wright low-ceilinged entry and into a tall, airy workspace. The angled roof was made of white canvas, which diffused the harsh desert sun into a soft, bright, and shadowless light, perfect for drawing. And, we all looked ten years younger! (Note to self: New house gets a canvas roof.)
Next, we walked outside, past the drafting studio and large, triangular pool. The wing to the left in the following photos is the drafting studio. Its roof is also canvas, which floods the space with so much light that electric lights are not needed during the day. The architecture and materials echo the shape and texture of the McDowell Mountains.
From the tip of the lawn’s triangle, we walked back to the main building and through a breezeway whose low ceiling created a welcome flow of air. Workers were busy restoring the roof.
I took a shot of the dining room—looking serene and cool in royal blue—through the glass.
We entered the living room, know as the Garden Room for its view into an enclosed garden. This room was air-conditioned, for which we were thankful. (You can bet it wasn’t air-conditioned back in Wright’s day. This is a comfort added for modern visitors.) The room featured the same white canvas roof panels and Wright’s famous origami chairs, which are made out of a single sheet of plywood, and are surprisingly comfy.
I’ve been to Taliesin West three times since the 1980s, and each time the tour is different because additional parts of the site have been restored and others are closed for restoration. This time, Mrs. Wright’s bedroom was featured. It’s a tiny room with a single bed, but two walls are covered in this colorful Japanese print. She called them swans … I call them cranes.
We walked through a mysterious passage and were told to listen for a fountain. We could not hear the fountain until we came upon it.
Finally, we walked through another courtyard filled with Heloise Crista’s sculptures and stood outside these intriguing doors. We were about to enter the cabaret, where Wright entertained the celebrities and influential people of his day.
Beyond the doors, we entered a long passageway with views down into the cabaret. Wright really knew how to create a dramatic entrance. Inside the six-sided room, the acoustics were nearly perfect. We sat in the back and could hear our tour guide whisper.
As we finished our tour, we exited through a long promenade topped with buttress-like wooden beams and lined with bougainvillea, adjacent to the drafting studio. (The tour does not include the drafting studio because it’s occupied by architectural graduate students. We could peek in, though.)
If we could have seen the drafting studio, it would have looked like this. Wonderful light! The traditional canvas roofs, which quickly rotted from sun exposure and had to be replaced occasionally, have been topped with protective Plexiglas for years. We learned that the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation is now partnering with Sunbrella to replace the canvas with UV-resistant Sunbrella fabric.Students at the School of Architecture at Taliesin traditionally build shelters in the desert surrounding Taliesin West. (The Wrights lived in a desert tent before Taliesin West was built, and Wright famously proclaimed he wouldn’t ask the students to do anything he hadn’t done.) Here’s a fun read that describes some of these fanciful structures:
I’m sure this won’t be our last tour of Taliesin West. Maybe next time we’ll explore the desert shelters or take the dramatic nighttime tour. Can’t wait!
I’ll post more desert adventures in between updates about the home front. Lots happening there!