West, The Arizona Biltmore
"I hated him, of course," Philip Johnson says of Frank Lloyd Wright, his architectural colleague and rival. "But that’s only normal when a man is so great. It’s a combination of hatred, envy, contempt and misunderstanding. All of which gets mixed up with his genius." Wright, a quintessential American genius, was loved for his charisma, charm and exceptional talent and vilified for his arrogance, self-aggrandizement and disreputable personal life. The narrator in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s fine film on Wright says, "He broke all the rules, both in architecture and in life."
In Phoenix last winter I broke a mind-numbing torpor, brought on by excessive spa-ing, sunning and shopping, to dig into this controversial master builder. Wright first came to Arizona to work on the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. In 1938, Wright at seventy-one and his third wife, Olgivanna, began what he called their "annual hegira." They moved the entire Wright fiefdom—plans, apprentices and children—from Wright’s Wisconsin headquarters, Taliesin (pronounced tally ehssen) to Arizona. This Fellowship was Olgivanna’s idea. It was a way to keep Wright active and solvent during the years with no commissions. Seventy-five fellows paid to work with Wright. He believed they could best "learn by doing," so they built Taliesin West, the fiefdom’s new winter quarters. They gardened, cooked, and studied the arts. Twice a month they emerged from their tents attired in tux and gown for formal desert dinners.
Today’s fellows are students at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. They still make an annual hegira and don formal garb for monthly dinners. They still learn by doing, but in smaller doses. While at Taliesin West, they keep company with The Wright Archives, The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and an on-site architectural firm. Docents lead tours and lone wanderers are not permitted.
Taliesin’s long drive, once twenty-six miles from Phoenix, now begins in northwest Scottsdale. It climbs a desert wash towards the McDowells, crusty with cactus and rusty-colored rock. The drive ends just below Taliesin’s own mesa which Wright described as having "a look over the rim of the world."
To get my own look, I joined a small docent-led group for the ninety-minute Insights Tour. Wright’s office, the first of Taliesin’s original buildings is, as they all are, low to the ground, angular and bold. Quartzite boulders—tawny, copper and gold—were gathered from right here and arranged in temporary wood molds as walls. Set with "desert concrete," sand from the local washes mixed with Portland cement, the quartzite became Taliesin’s ornamentation, inside and out as well as its support. Wright designed buildings not to lash out from the land but to lace into it. He called it "Organic Architecture."
Inside Wright’s office, the Arizona sun, searing and sharp with shadows, is transformed into a clear, serene luminosity by a pitched roof of cream-colored canvas stretched between beams. Triangles of open space, between roof and wall, allow a shaded light to enter. The space is somehow both intimate and soaring, both comforting and cool. It feels like being in the desert while simultaneously being protected from it. Wright’s goal was not a box, no matter how elegant, to enclose people, but the creation of inspiring spaces, spaces that could transform their occupants.
Up several steps, the wall of the design studio, Taliesin’s core, leans out to meet the rise of its low roof. Eleven more buildings, each a few steps higher or lower than next are set at 45 degree angles to one another. Wide breezeways and pathways weave the compound together. At each turn, a new aspect of the desert appears: a sage-colored olive tree accentuates the truly blue sky, a saguaro cactus towers over desert rubble and wide steps appear to lead right up the jagged McDowells. The shadows Taliesin casts resound with the desert-mountain cadence—strong and craggy.
This is Wright’s genius, the interweaving of natural elements with the elements of man to create something comfortable with and better than both. "Our new desert camp belonged to the Arizona desert as though it had stood there during creation" declared the none-too-modest Wright.
At the tour’s end, I head towards Phoenix and the "not quite Wright" Arizona Biltmore. Sparks still smolder from the clash of architectural egos that created this hotel. "I have always given Albert's name as architect ... and always will," Wright wrote to Albert Chase McArthur's widow 25 years after the fact. "But I know better and so should you." Wright did spend four months working on The Biltmore, but how much he did is still a point of contention. Wright was not above telling outrageous lies. One historian calls Wright’s autobiography one of "his greatest creative works." When caught out, Wright would simply smile and say, "Oh well, there you are."
Never mind, the Biltmore is redolent with Wright. Desert lines, long and low, dominate. A stately core, not unlike the regal saguaro cactus, rises from its center. Three Wright sprites, lean and deco, bow their heads in quiet greeting, belying their treacherous thirty year trip from Chicago and the Wright-designed Midway Gardens.
Quartered and halved, turned and inverted, concrete blocks cast with a palm bark relief embellish the Biltmore’s exterior and interior wall—just as the quartzite boulders would later embellish Taliesin. Such decorative blocks were a Wright invention. A stained glass mural, ablaze with color, is definitely deco and definitely Wright, an Olgivanna donation. It was hung upside down, so its cactus motif is best seen at a tilt.
The light of opaque-glass sconces reverberates off the gold-leaf ceiling of the two-storied, two-hundred-foot-long, block-covered lobby. It feels like gaining admittance to a castle. I tuck into an intimate foyer under the second-floor promenade to sip tea and reflect on the Wright attributes the tour soft-pedaled. Wright was often wrong. He was a charlatan. He got commissions by vast exaggerations of his role in previous buildings. He walked out on his first wife and four children for a mistress. He lived beyond his means. His buildings went over budget and over schedule. They had heating, leaking, and leaning problems. Still, just being a part of a Wright creation—and then living within such a glorious space—his clients, like Wright himself, viewed these problems as acceptable.
Oh well, there you are.
Kate Crawford November 2002
LINKS WITH ATTITUDE
There's lots of information about Taliesin West and the various tours on the Frank Lloyd Wright web site. It includes a list of all the Wright buildings you can visit.
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