A week in the desert, part 1: Taliesin West

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.

We arrived in Phoenix and drove to Tucson via highways 60 and 79.

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.

Stone and concrete sign at Taliesin West.

Angles, stone walls and palo verde trees.

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.

Clasped hands?

Our refrigerator magnet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We entered here, going down the stairs to the gift shop to buy our tickets.

Fountain at the entrance to Taliesin West.

Angles everywhere.

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.

Stairs and pool at Taliesin West

A glimpse of the stairs to the pool.

Pool and drafting studio at Taliesin West.

Looking back toward the drafting studio.

The main building seen from the lawn.

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.

Bronze sculpture by Heloise Crista at Taliesin West

Sculpture by Heloise Crista.

I took a shot of the dining room—looking serene and cool in royal blue—through the glass.

Dining room at Taliesin West

Blue-upholstered dining room ready for lunch.

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.

Garden room at Taliesin West

Garden room showing canvas ceiling.

Orange-upholstered origami chair at Taliesin West.

Wright’s origami chair.

Folding screen with layout of Taliesin West as pattern.

One of my favorite details: The layout of Taliesin West makes an attractive screen.

Round vase protrudes from hole in window glass.

When your pot is too wide for the windowsill. (Never mind the rain damage.)

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.

Mrs. Wright's bedroom at Taliesin West, showing Japanese print wallpaper.

Mrs. Wright’s bedroom.

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.

Stone-walled passage at Taliesin West.

Don’t you want to know where this leads?

Fountain courtyard at Taliesin West

We stepped out of the dark doorway into the fountain courtyard.

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.

Two of the sculptures by Heloise Crista

Double red doors with Chinese pulls

Entrance to the cabaret.

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.

Slanted cabaret hallway at Taliesin West

Do you feel off-kilter?

Cabaret theatre at Taliesin West.

Sitting in Wright’s cabaret. Entrance hallway on the left.

Detail of cabaret wall sconce.

Detail of cabaret wall sconce.

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.)

Passageway outside drafting studio at Taliesin West

Down a long walkway under wooden beams.

Steel beams create a breezeway next to the drafting studio at Taliesin West.

Another look at the promenade. The red doors open into the drafting studio. The white squares are shutters for the windows.

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.

Drafting studio interior [photo: Steven C. Price]

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:
https://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/taliesin-west-desert-shelters

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!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

12 thoughts on “A week in the desert, part 1: Taliesin West

  1. Barbara H.

    Thanks for the tour! I’ll probably never get there in person so I appreciate seeing it through your eyes.

    Reply
  2. Angela

    Same here, me living in Spain 😊
    Thank you so much, that was a feast for the senses! I love this arquitect and almost ended up building a replica of one of his houses in Germany but then decided to follow the sun to Spain which I havent regretted at all. Now I live in a house made out of five towers in the premedieval style of the moros – arabs which lived centuries ago in the Southern parts of Spain- overlooking the mediterranean Sea. We are very happy here. I really enjoy a lot your posts which I follow since years, thank you for putting so much love in all of them!

    Reply
  3. Karen B.

    D’Arcy, What a great stop in your travels. Have you ever read Loving Frank? I believe that novel may have ruined Frank Lloyd Wright for me. Still, it’s beyond impressive the accomplishment.
    xo,
    Karen

    Reply
    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Hi Karen! Yes, I’ve read “Loving Frank” and “The Women” and several other books about him, including biographies. He was a rascal all right … a creative genius with a personality to match. I don’t know if I’d have liked the man, but I love his work!

      Reply
  4. Nine Dark Moons

    Wow, that’s amazing! I’ve never seen any of his properties or buildings in person. Maybe someday! Thanks for taking such great pictures and crafting such a wonderful written experience to go with them – I feel like I’ve been there. Hooray for retirement vacations 🙂

    Reply
      1. Nine Dark Moons

        Yes, it’s a great way to share our experiences with friends and family, and also to cement the memories in for our own future reading 🙂 I have found I remember so much more about past vacations after re-reading my posts about them.

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