Alexander Josephson of Toronto architecture firm Partisans travels to Phoenix to experience Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy first-hand – just as students at the recently rescued School of Architecture at Taliesin are presenting their visions for temporary desert shelters.
I remember driving to Cornell University for an architecture school interview with my father. Like any student, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Looking back, I think my parents were secretly concerned that I might actually get accepted. After all, the Canadian dream of going down south to study is an expensive one. But it is also a pilgrimage; there are certain institutions in the world of architecture that we all make time to go visit or try to get into. You can’t help but be drawn to them. That day in the winter of 2001 my interview couldn’t have gone worse. I told the professor sitting across from me, a white-haired man named Mr. White, or Mr. Grey, that I loved Frank Lloyd Wright and building things. Mr. White or Mr. Grey swiftly responded: “Young man, that’s great, but being an architect isn’t the same thing as being a builder.” And I don’t think he cared who my favourite architect was. I did not get into Cornell.
It was only a few weeks later, before my interview for the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, that a mentor and friend of mine let me in on a little secret: at all costs, avoid citing Frank Lloyd Wright as your favourite architect if you want to be taken seriously. Luckily, by then, I had taken a real interest in Jean Nouvel. I got in. Anyone but Wright would have done. But why?
I am about to be picked up from the Phoenix airport by Richard Quittenton, a promising soon-to-be architect and a former student of mine at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture at the University of Toronto. It’s December 2018 and the air in Phoenix is therapeutically warm and dry. The moment I got off the plane, I could actually breathe. I suddenly understand why everyone’s grandparents move here; they won’t catch a cold and it’s cheaper than Palm Beach. And as coincidence has it, Frank Lloyd Wright felt the same. He started moving there at the ripe age of 68, in 1935, to establish an outpost in the world of architecture that would eventually become legendary: Taliesin West.
I find Quittenton waiting with a car at arrivals. Then another man, wearing a well-tailored Japanese suit, strolls up to greet me with a big smile and a resounding hello. Aaron Betsky is one of the great minds in contemporary architectural theory and criticism and the Dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin. Quittenton has been clever enough to schedule our arrivals simultaneously. I ride shotgun as the author of At Home in Sprawl gives me a front row–seat tour through a prototypical city of sprawl. On and on it goes, an essay in post-war American suburbia rendered in adobe browns, beiges and burnt umbers. Then, at a nondescript intersection, the gates to Taliesin emerge.
The gates and campus all speak to a moment in time. Frank Lloyd Wright and his pupils built this place with their bare hands and rudimentary mechanical equipment. The structures are all defined by a sense of craft and matter. Local stone was quarried to be mixed with concrete as the base move across all of the buildings. Which only makes sense – in the desert, structures need to have thick walls and provide shade; they need to retain heat during the day and release it through the night. Still in the car, we drive past all these buildings that clearly evoke a Wrightian stance on desert architecture – horizontal and prairie-inspired, they are punctuated by windows, portals, trellises and heavy stone-concrete bases.
We park, and Quittenton and Betsky usher me to the compound. As we descend a small but wonderfully crafted pathway – past a pool inset behind a low wall, and then a small reflecting pond the shape of a crystal – the experience of the site as a kind of temple strikes me.
At the central breezeway, two structures frame an elevated view of Scottsdale and Phoenix at dusk; the city beyond is aglow with lights and the pink hue of the sky. The ceiling of the breezeway is low and the textures of the stone boulders, embedded in cement, are intensely willful. Only truly exceptional architecture creates that effect. To the right, a red, smooth pivot wall leads into a space six-foot-six-inches tall by 20-feet wide and about 30-feet long. I can effortlessly reach up and touch the ceiling’s adobe-painted steel rafters, which resemble wooden beams, and their white coffer inset panels.
With its cantilevered corner glass windows and six 10-person dining tables with matching chairs upholstered in bright blue fabric, this space has been kept mostly in its original state, dating back to the first days of Taliesin. Students eat their lunch while making casual banter as my hosts lead me into the kitchen, where another panel pivot door opens. And suddenly I am in it – the space that, to me, most embodies Taliesin: the studio, with its exposed deep-section, angled wooden rafters with canvas inlays. Wright’s understanding of the human scale through the articulation of his spaces is unparalleled. There is an intimacy that I realize is missing from a lot of my own projects. There is a tactility and proximity of surfaces, materials, and forms that most contemporary architecture ignores due to a desire for creating images or volumes. Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture cannot be captured in a photograph; no image of Taliesin can do it justice. My mind was instantly changed upon experiencing it.