CDA Visits Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West

Apr 20, 2023

Frank Lloyd Wright needs no introduction, especially in the world of architecture and design. Taliesin West, on the other hand, is not as widely recognized as the name of the man who designed it. A UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a US Historic Landmark, Taliesin West was FLW’s desert home, educational fellowship and laboratory where he spent time from its inception in 1937 right through to his death in 1959. As an important cultural landmark, the home has become a beacon for those hoping to channel the energy and genius of Lloyd Wright. CDA’s own Lauren Chipman and Nelly Augustyn took a recent visit to Taliesin West. The inspiration they found in that desert oasis is documented in the conversation below, which has been edited for length.

Lauren: Oh my gosh, look at us. A couple of happy ladies. 

Nelly: I was just so excited to go to Taliesin West with you, Lauren. Mostly you do these kinds of group trips with family and friends and kids – but I’ve never done anything like this with a fellow architect.

Lauren: I totally agree. There’s always something special about experiencing an iconic space like this with a colleague who will nerd out on details with you!

Nelly: It was wonderful having the time to explore the property and just really soak it in. I loved being able to hear about the way he approached the landscape and how it was all built into that beautiful mountain - it would've just bored my  kids to death.

Kyle, Debbie, and Lauren Chipman on family trip to Falling Water in 1994

Lauren: As the daughter of an architect, I grew up knowing all about Frank Lloyd Wright. We took a family vacation to see Falling Water when I was probably eight years old and Kyle was five. So, I've grown up with an understanding of Wright’s work – but always from a very midwestern appreciation of him. Living in Chicago we’re so blessed with easy access to so much of his work: the Unity Temple, the Robie House and of course, his house and studio in Oak Park, IL. But, to be able to see his work in person against that desert landscape was so powerful. There were so many moments throughout the tour where we actually turned away from the house or the studio to appreciate at the landscape. 

Nelly: That is so true. He really resonates as a Midwest personality to me. When you think of his work in the Midwest, you think lush and green and grass and trees. It’s all rounded out in the four seasons. Phoenix is such a juxtaposition. When I moved out to Arizona, I started to realize how much influence he has out here. There's Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, there's Taliesin West, The Biltmore. When most people think of the Southwest they think of the desert, Native American influence, Mexican influence, cactuses, but there are so many small nods to his work throughout the city and it doesn’t  stand out like a sore thumb like you might think.

Nelly: Of course we needed a photo op at the drafting table! One of the most interesting things about this studio was that it was designed to be worked in silence, which is the opposite of what we're trying to create in our office. CDA’s culture is about camaraderie and community — even more so recently with hybrid work. Then you enter a place like this and I thought,  “Gosh, Frank Lloyd Wright was telling us to work in silence and work all in the same room.” 

Lauren: I think it reflects who he was as a leader. He wanted collaboration, if it supported his vision and his work.

Lauren: I love this moody photo the surrounding landscape. Nelly said, “Lauren, look how lush everything is right now, because there's been so much rain in Arizona.” Just beyond those bushes the land is completely developed but it didn’t used to be that way. My mom grew up in Phoenix and my dad worked at a firm there. They told me that when they visited Taliesin in the 1970s it was literally in the middle of nowhere. The city has really expanded! 

Nelly: I wish the sky was a bit clear that day because normally we have these endless skies with sunrises and sunsets for days and the gorgeous colors that come with them. I'm sure that was one of the things Wright gravitated to when he fell in love with Arizona.

Lauren: This is the entrance to his personal office and studio and it’s a great example of Wright’s use of compression and release. The ceiling height as you enter is very low and then it opens up into a much larger space. Also notable is the use of the checkerboard with gold and turquoise coloring – very evocative of colors used in Native American artwork. And of course, the roof you see was originally just fabric hence all of the staining. There is a sort of non-permeable covering that’s been added to it over the years as well. The deep overhangs keep  the room cool and allow daylight in but sunlight out. A beautiful room.

Nelly: In almost all of the exterior views in our photos, there's a mountain in the background. That is very purposeful as it relates to the height and the proportions of the architecture. If the building were any taller and any larger, the mountain would go out of view.

I also thought it was interesting that there is a bunch of grass here. Grass doesn't do so well in Arizona and is not part of the natural landscape but maybe the Midwesterner in Wright, like all of us, wanted to see just a little lush greenery. The funny part is you're not even allowed to walk on it, which is unfortunate  because I wanted to circumnavigate that pond.

Nelly: The water all comes from onsite, it doesn't come from any of our tributaries. He insisted that he would find water when he selected this site and I think 500 feet down, he finally hit an aquifer. So this is self-replenishing and the water is super clean, super pristine. All these pools are beautiful.

Nelly: There are a number of these vignettes around and many have an Asian influence. I’ve tried to research where his obsession with Asian culture comes from. Lauren, do you know?

Lauren: I know that early in his career he was able to support his family by importing Japanese prints and was always fascinated with Asian art and architecture. One other thing we learned on the tour is that every time you’d come across one of these vignettes on the campus it meant that your perspective was about to change. Additionally, the red square to the lower right of the vignette is a tile with his signature. That was only allowed on a building if it  met his design intent and was not “watered down” by anyone else's hand.

Lauren: These photos are of his actual residence on the property. This was his home where he would live with his family and his wife would host classical music concerts for the community, both in this room and a theater that you'll see later on. My mom, when she was about eight years old, went to the one of these very concerts at Taliesin. 

Nelly: As a classical musician, did you notice anything about the acoustics?

Lauren: I cannot imagine they would be particularly good based on these very strange angles and the fabric panels and carpet would soak up a lot of sound. I think one of the notable things in terms of Wright's work is the difficulty these buildings have had withstanding the test of time. I think it's interesting to consider: for someone who has such a grandiose sense of self to design buildings that requires so much maintenance. Is it intentional? Was he expecting people to maintain them forever? Is he just goading us from beyond? Or did he  refuse to listen to anyone else's opinion?

Nelly: It’s also worth noting that it was only meant to be enjoyed during certain seasons. He was not out here in the middle of the summer because it’s not a livable environment in Arizona at over 100° F. 

Lauren: It's the school for his students in the winter, because no one wants to be in Wisconsin in the winter.

Nelly: So, they would shut down Taliesin West in the summertime and come back when it was right for that type of construction. Originally there wasn’t any glass in the windows, it was all open to the elements. Eventually glass was added to keep the elements out but you can see in the photo above how Wright’s design never planned for it — in fact, there was an area with a vase that had a hole cut in the glass.

Lauren: I thought that was such a funny, weird thing that speaks to how particular he was. The vase was up against where glass was being installed, but he DID NOT WANT the vase moved. They put the glass in the frame, but couldn’t install it completely. The compromise was that a circle was cut out of the glass, so the vase could stay where it was. And so it has existed this way for over 50 years now.

Nelly: Here's the theater room. When I watch movies with my family, I want to curl up with a blanket. This perspective is from the table in the center of the room. The whole space is very formal, right? I couldn't enjoy it in with my family.

Lauren: And, just looking at this photo of Nelly in the entryway to the theater, Nelly is a diminutive woman and even she feels like she’s being squeezed in this very short, very narrow area.

Nelly: I'm a short person! I can fit clearly through all of the openings and the doorways, but even I was a little compressed. When we were there, I asked Lauren, a very tall person, what that feels like to be forced through those areas. How comfortable do you think it would be to actually live and work in a place like that?

Lauren: Frank Lloyd Wright was a short man. A short, and unpleasant man! This is not a controversial statement. And, I propose this perspective. He’s famous for his compression and release in spaces. He brings the space down as you enter the space so you feel cocooned, and then he opens it up again as you move through the environment. When visiting here, I felt there was a lot less of the expansion piece at Taliesin West from what I've experienced at other buildings of his.

This campus seemed very personal for him. He designed this building for himself and whether it's a matter of him curating the experience for others or controlling the experience, his presence is still felt 75 years later. However, it definitely is not a place where, if you are tall, if you are big, if you are not his size, that you feel particularly comfortable when you are inside.

Equally it's not a place that was designed for comfort. His family had their quarters, however as we said, for years, there was no glass. The roof was just tarps, fabric and so it was not a place that was meant to be luxurious. It was “of the land” and I thought that was a really intriguing part of the experience. 

Nelly: I was not aware of his personal life when we visited. And while we were on site, Lauren was like, “Let me tell you about this… Let me tell you about that…” And I was like, “Oh, I don't know if I'm enjoying this as much as I would have without going diving into his backstory.

How can my opinion of the physical not be swayed by the man who created it? How am I supposed to enjoy it? I would have been happy not knowing all of the demons in his closet and all the bad things that happened in his life. But, it is a part of the conversation. 

Lauren: It goes to question of can you separate the art from the artist? 

Nelly: Absolutely. 

Lauren: So we have to ask ourselves, why is Wright such the icon he is today, despite all that we know about his personal life. I think one of the things that are notable is his use of space. His concept of breaking the box was so radical at the time. There are consistent themes he continually returns to throughout his work from the early Prairie style and to his later Usonian work, to residences and even big buildings like Guggenheim and Johnson Wax. He is always thinking about nature and the human relation to it. It’s the simplicity of that. Additionally, this unity of design that systematically reflected throughout the building, and is even designed into the built-in furniture, the finishes, the stained glass. It’s a holistic concept of what architecture can be and, at the end of the day, it’s a celebration of America.

What’s so notable is that he was the first one to do this. Everyone prior was referring back to the past: to ancient Rome and Classicism, to Gothic architecture, Romanesque architecture, the Baroque. Frank Lloyd Wright wiped the slate clean. It was at the same time as the modernism movement was moving through Europe but, he was still really leading the way.

That’s how I look at it. You have to be able to separate the two because otherwise you do feel his ghost in there. You feel that sense of curation versus control and I think we have to appreciate the role that he had in setting architecture in a completely different direction.

Nelly: I wonder: Could he be radical without actually being a radical? None of this would exist if he wasn't the person that he was. So, if it helped him be that, it helped him to pave the way.

Lauren: Yeah, he had the ego to say, “No, this is the right way. I'm not listening to anyone else.” 

Well Nelly, thank you for being my architecture buddy on this amazing field trip to Taliesin West! I loved experiencing this campus with you, and even more so, the conversation it elicited.

Nelly: Thank you, Lauren.

Photos by Lauren Chipman and Nelly Augustyn except photo of vase with cut out glass taken by Mark Lakeman.