Taliesin West: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Desert Oasis

In 1909, famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright began constructing a house on the brow of a hill near Spring Green, Wisconsin. He had grown up in the hills of the state and was inspired by the landscape. His mother was of Welsh descent, and he named the 800-acre estate Taliesin, which is a personal name rooted in Welsh mythology that translates to radiant or shining brow. This was not Wright’s first home, nor would it be his last. He had completed a small two-story residence in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, in 1889. Fire almost completely destroyed Taliesin in 1914 and again in 1925, but Wright rebuilt both times.

In the early 1930s, Wright and his third wife, Olgivanna, established an architectural apprentice program at his Wisconsin home called the Taliesin Fellowship, which provided students with an immersive experience that integrated design and construction with growing and preparing food and the study of the arts. The term the Wrights used was “organic architecture.” Wright would continue to make changes and additions to Taliesin over the years after the fires, including converting a chicken coop into a dormitory for his architectural apprentices!

Wright and his students needed seasonal respite from the harsh winters of Wisconsin and found one in 1934 when he rented space for the Fellowship in sunny Arizona. The change in climate was so welcoming that Wright decided to create a winter location for his school. He purchased property in the rugged Sonoran Desert at the base of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale, northeast of Phoenix, where he and his apprentices would construct Taliesin West. This winter camp would become a study in how to blend architecture into a stark landscape incorporating water, shade, foliage, and indigenous materials to create a desert oasis. Wright’s architectural school used both Taliesin locations depending upon the season, even after the master’s death in 1959 in Phoenix at the age of 91. Although the Wisconsin program at Taliesin East finally closed in 2020, the tradition continues to this day with the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in two locations in Arizona. Both Taliesin East and West are now historical sites open to the public, with guided or self-guided tours available.

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona

During the week following Christmas in 2022, my wife and I returned to the Phoenix area for a vacation. It is one of our favorite destinations in the country and where we hope to spend considerable time during retirement. On this trip we visited Taliesin West, which was my first time seeing the site. We took a self-guided tour, using a mobile phone app with earplugs to listen to a virtual guide describe the structures and surrounding grounds as we walked through a series of numbered stations over the course of about an hour. The whole setup was quite slick – impressive and informative. Along with other visitors taking the same tour, we were able to stroll through the various rooms and outdoor spaces. It is understandable why Andrew Pielage decided to call his photographic exhibition of Wright’s work “Sacred Spaces,” showcasing how the architect skillfully designed structures that seem almost sanctified.

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona

Several design elements of Taliesin West stand out in my mind. A common theme throughout is the use of sharp angles for roof lines, steps, walkways, and water features. This collection of points is reminiscent of the McDowell Mountain peaks visible to the east of the property. The stone and plaster walls, interior and exterior, imitate the rocky outcroppings around Scottsdale and throughout the Phoenix valley. Red, orange, brown, and blue are dominant colors for painted surfaces and fabric, reflecting the palette of the Sonoran Desert floor and the skies above that remain clear most of the time. Although rare in the desert, water is present in the form of rivers, such as the Salt, Gila, and the Agua Fria in Phoenix. Also, the Sonoran Desert gets more rainfall than any other desert in North America. Wright and his apprentices included several modest water features at Taliesin West. Some people have speculated that Wright may have become paranoid after suffering through multiple devastating fires and wanted water nearby as a safeguard. In any case, the presence of water created a literal oasis at Taliesin West.

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation that owns and operates Taliesin West does a fine job of managing the site as a historically-preserved house museum. The rooms are presented in a fashion that makes them look as if Wright and his students have left for the summer but will return next winter. Spaces are appointed with original (or at least period) art pieces, artifacts, furniture, and furnishings. The story the curators are telling is as much about Wright’s apprentices and their accomplishments as it is about the master architect himself. There are various places where people could gather together, including a small theatre. There are at least three pianos in the buildings, implying how important music was to the general atmosphere the Wrights were producing. Toward the end of his life, Frank Lloyd Wright was hosting cocktail parties with Olgivanna at Taliesin West for select groups of people in the greater Phoenix area. What fascinating conversations must have occurred at such gatherings, no doubt dominated by the celebrity architect who had grown so fond of his sacred space in Arizona.

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona

The Living Desert

Yes, the title sounds like a contradiction in terms, a true oxymoron. Deserts typically conjure up images of sand, rocks, and tumbleweeds with no water in sight. Many consider them lifeless, especially people who have never actually set foot in one. Of course, David Attenborough and others have done their best to illustrate how deserts are teeming with life, but there are still plenty of folks who cling to the misconceptions. The unconverted are often convinced there is only one season in the desert – summer. They also tend to think that all parts of a desert region are the same regarding topography, temperature, weather patterns, vegetation, and wildlife. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Phoenix, Arizona
Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Phoenix, Arizona

The only desert I have visited is in the American Southwest, primarily the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. However, I have read about other deserts around the world and have been mesmerized by documentary productions from PBS, BBC, National Geographic, and the Smithsonian. Depending on the time of year, there is incredible beauty to behold all across the desert landscape. Water may not be abundant, but it does exist. It also rains in the desert, although it tends to come all at once. In some areas it even snows, especially in the higher altitudes. Desert flora and fauna have evolved to survive in these conditions through a variety of innovative adaptations.

Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Phoenix, Arizona
Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Phoenix, Arizona

Green is my favorite color, I suppose because in the botanical world it signifies life. I love the lushness of forests, glades, mossy creek banks, fern blankets, and understory shrubs, but the desert has its own rich palette of green in so many different shades. The Sonoran Desert explodes from mid-March to late April with hundreds of species of wildflowers. Portions of the region stay green throughout the year with signature plants that are the most familiar in the Southwest. What adds even more interest is the plethora of shapes and sizes, from the golden brittlebush to the giant saguaro cactus. Some of the plants look as if they are extraterrestrial. The shapes and configurations get a bit funky sometimes, but these oddities are great for home or business landscapes because they are so unusual and even whimsical.  

Desert blooms in early spring in Arizona
Desert blooms in early spring in Arizona
Hillside of cacti in the Sonoran Desert, Arizona
Hillside of cacti in the Sonoran Desert, Arizona

For American travelers who seek magnificent scenery and some of the best outdoor recreation the country has to offer, overlooking the desert Southwest is a huge mistake. There are hiking trails everywhere. Depending on the location, the temperature is pleasant all year. The region is great for fishing, camping, cycling, mountain biking, birdwatching, and so much more. The same opportunities are available within deserts all over the world. If “getting away from it all” sounds appealing beyond the necessities of social distancing in the age of COVID, the desert is the place to be. So, dismiss the stereotypes and dig a little deeper to discover just how alive the desert is, and then make plans to witness it in the flesh.

Landscape plant at Scottsdale's Museum of the West, Scottsdale, Arizona
Landscape plant at Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, Scottsdale, Arizona
A palette of green in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Tucson, Arizona
A palette of green in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Tucson, Arizona