When my friend Amy and I decided to unite our shared sense of wanderlust in the form of a winter vacation, our main criteria were: scenic and not too wintry. And that’s how we found ourselves in Arizona!
Apparently Frank Lloyd Wright’s doctor agreed about the mildness of winter in Arizona, because that’s what he prescribed for the famed architect as he struggled with his health. At this point in 1937, Wright was already 70 years old and an incredibly famous architect, and he chose to build this winter camp in Arizona as his second home. The name Taliesin West (pronounced like tally-essen) draws from his first Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, which was his architecture school and his home for the rest of the year. Wright would live here with his wife Olgivanna every winter for 22 years until his death at age 91 in 1959. Today it’s an accredited (although very small and quirky) architecture school and home of the FLW Foundation. They give tours to the public every day. This was our first stop of our Arizona Adventures and a much more thorough and rewarding tour than we expected!
Welcome to the desert.
Here is Wright’s unsolicited redesign of the Arizona state capitol (which is very plain by comparison and we visit later in our trip). The government didn’t take him up on the suggestion at all, but they did take the spire design and build just that after his death as a monument to him.
Even the chairs are originals designed by Wright. These are from the Midway Gardens in Chicago.
Our very informative tour guide explains the logo of Taliesin West, which was taken from a petroglyph that Wright found on one of the rocks on site. It looks like square interlocking spirals, which he took to symbolize interconnectedness but actually meant an arrow in flight to the Native Americans that drew it.
The blue, red, and white antennae-looking things are Wright’s abstraction of saguaro cacti.
Wright really liked these cheap reproduction ceramic pieces from Chinatown, San Francisco. They’re incorporated all over the property. The red square below is his signature tile, which at first he intended to grant to all his homeowners as a signature piece on the buildings he designed but soon decided to grant only when he deemed the homeowners to have kept the integrity of his designs whole. Wright wasn’t exactly a people pleaser and famously stuck to his design convictions, often at the expense of client comfort and concerns. Leaky roofs, for instance, are a well known problem of Wright houses. He didn’t seem to care much until it turned out that his own roof here at Taliesin West also leaked. Then he came up with some creative solutions that would definitely not be up to any building codes today.
The beautiful space he designed for entertaining. They had black tie parties all the time as a way for Wright to always be soliciting new potential commissions.
Unlike many other Wright buildings, this one is not a museum! So you actually get to sit in the chairs and touch things!
This is the bed that Frank Lloyd Wright and his third wife Olgivanna shared. With a permanent wall down the middle. I guess it worked, because they were together for over thirty years until the end of his life, and she still spent her winters here even after his death.
Also for the nightly entertaining, a theater. And don’t forget that this was also an architecture school with apprentices that were expected to live in tents and act like free labor, building Taliesin West, while cooking meals and also providing entertainment in these theater productions. I really admire a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work but his life is really a testament to fame and white male privilege with his gigantic ego and the amount of stuff that he got away with.
Next to the theater there is also a burlesque, which is a very interesting space. The walls of the room make it hexagonal and it’s been scientifically tested to be almost accoustically perfect. You’re able to hear even a whisper very clearly from any part of the room.
In addition, all the rows are slanted. Why? Because Wright thought that everyone should want to sit the way that he likes to sit, which is demonstrated below by Amy: with his right arm draped over the seat and his left leg crossed over. Interesting.
And that was only a brief recap of our 90-minute tour! We both thoroughly loved it, I having been to other FLW sites before (Fallingwater, Marin County Civic Center, Guggenheim, the little building in San Francisco, and even the Hollyhock House briefly, ten years ago) and Amy being new to it. We also listened to these two very pertinent and fascinating episodes of the podcast 99% Invisible about FLW before and after our visit, and I highly recommend those also! Usonia 1 and Usonia the Beautiful.
More to come from our Arizona Adventures, but this was a wonderful start! Stay tuned.
Anna Wu is a wedding and portrait photographer based in San Francisco. She creates beautiful, soft, and timeless imagery while capturing the most fleeting of moments. View her work at annawu.com, follow her daily adventures on instagram, and contact her to book your own session today.