SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Few people other than architects had heard of Fallingwater in December 1937 when Frank Lloyd Wright paid $2,000 for 600 acres of rugged, virgin desert in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains.
No one knew what to make of the 70-year-old architect and his complex of modest tent-like structures, a camp where he planned to escape the harsh winters of his native Wisconsin.
Who builds a winter home and school out of sand, gravel and native stone? Or keeps the scorching desert sun at bay with asymmetrical white canvas roofs and flaps instead of windows?
Wright's organic approach to architecture always tended toward the radical, and Taliesin West, as the architecture school and bold experiment in desert living would be known, ultimately proved itself an astounding, and intricate, work of art. You can't visit without feeling an overwhelming sense of place.
"I was struck by the beauty of the desert, by the dry, clear sun-filled air, by the stark geometry of the mountains. ... The design sprang out of itself, with no precedent and nothing following it," Wright later wrote.
The project kicked-started the most productive period of Wright's professional life, coming together just as Fallingwater made him a household name. Few visitors realize the connection between his desert masterpiece and the stunning weekend home he designed over Bear Run for Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr.
Without the Fallingwater commission, my tour guide Chris Adix explained on a recent visit, Wright never would have had the money to build on the outskirts of Phoenix. Fans can thank a doctor friend of his third wife, Olgivanna, who urged the Wisconsinite to consider wintering in the dry, sunny Southwest after he contracted pneumonia in 1936. The move, he predicted, would "prolong his life by 20 years."
Wright was well-acquainted with Arizona when he arrived in the Sonoran Desert with Olgivanna to prospect for land in 1937. Nine years prior he had consulted on the luxurious Arizona Biltmore hotel, and he also had been hired in 1928 to design a resort for Dr. Alexander Chandler just south of Phoenix. Unfortunately, those plans ended up crashing, along with the stock market in 1929, slashing his $40,000 fee to just $2,500.
Yet the failed job paid big in another way: it allowed him to experiment with the intricacies of desert building by constructing a rustic, temporary camp known as Ocatillo with a group of fellows from Taliesin, the school of architecture he founded in 1932 with his wife in Spring Green, Wis.
It didn't take long for the Wrights to locate a perfect site for their self-contained community. True, the property overlooking Paradise Valley lacked utilities or water, and the untamed desert landscape was full of cactus, wild animals and snakes. But to Wright's creative eye, it was magic.
A collection of low-lying buildings linked by walkways, courtyards and terraces, Taliesin West was built over three years by artists and apprentices studying under Wright. They used the site as an architectural laboratory, but it was also very hard work.
In addition to lugging stones from the mountainside and digging sand from desert washes to use as building materials, they built the forms for the masonry walls, raised the redwood beams and mixed the cement that would bind everything together.
If the challenge of building on such an untamed site was intense, so was the group's primitive living conditions during construction. Early on, water had to be hauled in from a nearby ranch, and the sun was so intense that Wright -- who worked out of a tent instead of an office -- had to sketch his designs on brown craft paper to cut the glare, noted Mr. Adix.
Wright's architectural goal was to create a campus that was in total sync with its surroundings. To that end, the rock faces that rise from the desert floor into slanted walls were constructed in a myriad of shapes and natural desert hues. Diaphanous canvas between redwood trusses replaced a traditional roof, flooding the interior with a luscious golden light when hit by the afternoon sun.
"The place just imbues a state of harmony with nature," says Pittsburgh architect Gerald Morosco, who studied at Taliesin and Taliesin West in the early '80s. "That's the essence of Wright's organic philosophy."
A tour of Taliesin West starts in Wright's office and part-time design studio, a light and airy space with a dramatic translucent roof supported by exposed beams of wood and steel and a large, low drafting table. It opens onto a broad concrete terrace marked with scored joints.
Next comes the drafting studio. Ninety-six feet long, it has a fireplace at one end and a concrete vault at the other for the safe storage of Wright's drawings. It offers a stunning view of a sunken garden and a triangle-shaped pool that echoes the sharp angles of the desert.
Wright was a frequent entertainer, and the open 56-by-34-foot garden room -- a dramatic marriage of angles and windows -- must have delighted the often-famous guests who turned out for his legendary "Taliesin Evenings." But it also is a manipulative space. Lower ceilings force one to sit down, and built-in furniture means you have to look at what Wright wanted you to: the hillside, the mountains, the sky. Also, the organic furniture is more form than function (i.e. uncomfortable, assuring you didn't stay too long), and there's a decided lack of wall space for decorations "because his architecture was the artwork," says Mr. Adix.
The view at Taliesin West was so integral to its success that when power lines appeared in the distance in the late 1940s, Wright wrote President Harry S. Truman, demanding they be buried. It was a losing battle. So after briefly considering rebuilding in Tucson, he "turned his back on the valley," and changed the entrance to the rear of the main building.
"When you're 80, that's when the word 'compromise' hits your vocabulary," Mr. Adix quipped.
A peek into the Wrights' private bedroom wing -- a recent addition to the tour-- offers a more personal glimpse of their life there. Small and spare, with exposed beams and masonry walls, the separate bedrooms open onto a private garden with terrific valley views. Olgivanna's features a photo-mural reproduction of a 12-panel Japanese screen (the original is in the archives) and bi-fold doors. Her husband's is a little nicer, with built-in shelving, a fireplace and separate areas for napping and sleeping. A tiny bath has walls wrapped in aluminum and a skylight.
Other highlights include Wright's "kiva" theater, where the architect would watch director's cuts of movies (his granddaughter Ann Baxter was an actress); a long walk past a bell tower and under the big red crossbeams of a pergola (you can see students working through the window); and a sculpture garden displaying the work of Heloise Crista. The last stop is in the half-sunken Cabaret Theater, where seats are angled so no one gets a crook in their neck during performances.
Wright would continue to add and modify structures until his death at age 92 in 1959. In 1947, for example, he decided it was time to install glass; in 1957, he added a music pavilion, installed heaters and started experimenting with new materials to take the place of the white canvas roof. The school also continues to evolve, with experimental structures built by apprentices with native materials dotting the landscape.
More popular now than ever, Taliesin West was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and is on the short list for World Heritage status. It's easy to see why.
Our modern world, says Mr. Morosco, offers much to deplete our energies but little to restore them. At Taliesin West, he says, there's a feeling of sanctuary and harmony that resonates with everyone.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Mar. 29, 2010) Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater for Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr., whose name was incorrect in this story as originally published Mar. 27, 2010.
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com or 412-263-1419. First Published March 27, 2010 4:00 AM