Taliesin West: Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural desert masterpiece

Photo of Gemma Nisbet

His legacy includes famed buildings such as New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. But the man remembered as the most significant architect of the 20th century built his winter home (and design laboratory) in the Arizona desert.

“The Desert seems vast but the seeming is nothing compared to the reality,” wrote the architect Frank Lloyd Wright in his autobiography, published in 1943.

The desert in question was Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, which extends into California and Mexico and is said to be both one of the hottest and most biodiverse deserts in North America.

Remembered as the most significant architect of the 20th century and the best-known American architect to ever live, Wright was responsible for design innovations both large and small, from the popularisation of open-plan homes to the invention of track lighting and the coining of the word “carport”. His legacy includes renowned buildings such as New York City’s striking Guggenheim Museum.

Wright was already famous when he came to Arizona in his early 60s. Hotel projects drew him to the Phoenix area in the late 1920s but it was the landscape that really made an impression. 

Soon he and his family, along with the apprentices studying under his unconventional Taliesin Fellowship, began to make the annual cross-country trek from Taliesin, their base in rural Wisconsin, to spend the winter in the warmer climes of the south-west. In 1937 he bought several hundred acres of desert in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains near the small town of Scottsdale, a site Wright likened to “the top of the world”. 

When it came to building on this land, Wright drew on his philosophy of organic architecture, whereby a building should respond to and harmonise with its environment. It’s an idea most famously realised at Fallingwater, the iconic Wright- designed house that straddles a waterfall in the forests of rural Pennsylvania. In Arizona, he applied his ideas to a new setting, with spectacular results.

At once natural and geometric, strikingly innovative and yet somehow timeless, the low-lying living and working quarters that Wright and his apprentices built in the desert eventually came to be known as Taliesin West. 

“It was a new world to us and cleared the slate of the pastoral loveliness of our place in southern Wisconsin,” Wright wrote. The result, he said, “is a look over the rim of the world”.

Wright’s descriptions might run to superlatives, but on the October late afternoon that we visit Taliesin West, our genial Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation guide is more understated. “Desert winter camp — everything’s in those three words,” he tells us.

As this description suggests, Taliesin West grew out of an earlier desert camp set up by Wright and his entourage, and was intended to have an informal, communal feel. 

The complex was a laboratory for Wright to test out ideas and materials and was gradually expanded to include a series of living, dining, working and performances spaces. The apprentices built the walls of local stone and concrete — Wright was a great believer in learning by doing — and timber and canvas (eventually replaced by more durable plastic) were used for roofing. Glass was added only later, at the behest of Wright’s third wife Olgivanna.

Much has changed in the area since Wright died in 1959. Though still beautiful, the view across the valley is now cluttered with power lines and housing developments. Scottsdale has grown into an up-market resort boasting no fewer than 200 golf courses and is now more or less a suburb of Phoenix. Still, our guide tells us, Taliesin West remains not a museum but a place where people live and work, serving as the main campus for the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, the modern incarnation of the fellowship. As in Wright’s time, students and faculty spend the warmer months up in Wisconsin.

Our guide is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic, pointing out the pieces from Wright’s collection of Asian art scattered around the grounds, along with the repetition of geometric shapes, as in the ingeniously designed cabaret theatre. A particular highlight is the Wright family living quarters, which are entered via a door so unobtrusive none of us notice it until the guide points it out. It opens into the generous living room, known as the Garden Room, with stone walls and a sloping, translucent roof, unusual internal gutters and a large fireplace. Beyond this is a courtyard garden, along with the fairly modest quarters once occupied by Wright and his family.

All the while, our guide diplomatically avoids the more scandalous details of Wright’s personal life — his self-professed “honest arrogance”, his tumultuous romantic life, his financial and legal troubles, and the shocking murder of his partner Mamah Borthwick Cheney and six others by a servant at Taliesin in Wisconsin in 1914. I learn about these later, when I read the copy of Ada Louis Huxtable’s 2004 biography of Wright that I buy in the shop.

But for now, our tour complete, we stand in the car park, watching the sun set over the desert. The view might have changed since Wright’s day but as the last light of the day bathes the landscape in gold, lighting the sky pink and purple and orange, it’s easy to see why he wanted to make this place his home. 

As Wright himself wrote: “Once you get the desert in your blood — look on the map of Arizona Highways for Taliesin West.”

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