Frank Lloyd Wright’s Desert Workshop

Taliesin West

There’s something almost mythical about finally visiting Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. Wright’s winter home and school of architecture is part of the Frank Lloyd Wright story that I’ve been learning piece by piece through the years of my travels, reading, curiosity and explorations.

Right off the mark of the standard 1 ½-hour docent-led tour, you get a sense that you are somewhere unlike any place you’ve ever been. For starters, you begin in Wright’s office whose thick, stone walls lean in, at angles set to relate to the surrounding mountains, explained the docent. The ceiling is stretched canvas. A Frank Lloyd Wright structure with a canvas ceiling? Yep.

“Everything here is as Frank Lloyd Wright wanted it,” said our docent. “He had no client to please.” The canvas so beautifully filters the sunlight, casting no harsh shadows and making it easy to study large plans, you might just consider trying it somewhere at home. And really, that’s the point of Taliesin.

“This place was a laboratory where he could experiment with different ideas,” said our docent.

An example of the stretched canvas roof used at Taliesin, photo by Andrew Pielage; courtesy Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

The School of Architecture at Taliesin is a three-year masters’ level program where students live onsite and spend winters at Taliesin West in Arizona and summers at Taliesin in Wisconsin. This architecture Fellowship began in Wisconsin. But those buildings were expensive to heat during the cold Midwest winter. Enter, Taliesin West.

Wright and his wife Olgivanna envisioned the outpost in 1928 while working in Chandler, Arizona. But the stock market crash put that idea on hold.

In 1935, the Kauffman family, of Pittsburgh department stores, commissioned Wright to design their weekend home in the nearby Laurel Highlands of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Sound familiar? The Kauffmans’ home is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most recognizable buildings. Fallingwater is built atop a waterfall on the side of a steep stone mountain. Having recently moved to Pittsburgh, I had recently had the privilege of visiting.

Fallingwater, photo by Robert P. Ruschak, courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Fallingwater provided Wright an influx of cash, and – thanks to Time Magazine publisher Henry Luce who put Wright on the cover in Jan. 1938 – recognition. His career was jumpstarted at the age of 70, launching the most prolific chapter of his life, working until he died in 1959 at the age of 91.

This last December (2017) marked the 80th anniversary of the 1937 telegram Wright sent to the Fellowship in Wisconsin, telling apprentices of the new site in Arizona and inviting them to come with supplies, ready to work. Here’s the original, as well as an excerpt from Wright about the beginnings of Taliesin West.

So back to the desert and those early apprentices who arrived to nothing but a blank slate of Sonoran Desert in 1938. They set up in shepherd tents, and then built a road from their site on a mesa below McDowell Peak overlooking Paradise Valley. Construction of the office and main building followed within the next few years.

Sunset over Paradise Valley, photo by Foskett Creative; Courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

But it was the experience of sleeping in basic shelters that seems to have established one of the most longstanding traditions at Taliesin West. Living outdoors taught students about nature and shaping their living experience in harmony with their environment. If you wanted to come to Taliesin West, you brought a sleeping bag.

Even today, explained our docent, many students choose to live in outdoor dwellings that have no electricity or water. This has become known as the Desert Shelter Program. HOT TIP: On Saturdays at 1:15pm from mid-November through April, students guide tours of their desert shelters, designed by grad students. You can buy tickets here.

As we move through the various spaces and learn about life at Taliesin West and Wright’s philosophy of design and teaching, we settle for a bit in the rustic bedroom that had belonged to Wright, overlooking a bucolic, stone-walled courtyard. In a corner are two beds with a divider between, in the other corner a rustic stone fireplace where Wright is said to have made his morning tea. The point is that what we see is not a snapshot of how Wright left it; Olgivanna lived another 25 years and used this room as her own. Taliesin West is a National Historic Site but it is not a museum.

“You know that big fancy house you all came to see?” asks the docent. “You’re in it!” Which makes the room chuckle.

Unlike Fallingwater, a commission that must be finished and handed off to the client, Taliesin West was meant to be a place for learning and experimenting: A work in progress, just as Wright intended.

VISIT Taliesin West year-round but reserve ahead of time. There are eight different tours that range from 1-3 hours in length and they often sell out. Tour and ticket info here. 

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation owns Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Taliesin West, in Arizona, along with Wright’s intellectual property. They advance their mission through preservation, education, and innovation.

Special thanks to Experience Scottsdale for hosting my visit to Taliesin West.

By Foskett Creative; Courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

Megan Padilla

Whether writing about design, gardens, travel or lifestyle, Megan is drawn to share the stories of people's passions. Her stories have appeared in magazines, newspapers and online since 2000.