What Was It Like Living at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West?

In the late 1930s, Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentices began painstakingly building what would eventually become Taliesin West, the architect’s winter home and studio. After a long day’s work, Wright would retreat to the Sun Trap, a small low-slung cottage that served as his temporary home, and his students would make their way back to tents spread out across the Scottsdale desert.

“In the winter, there were sheepherders that would bring flocks from the north down to the warmer Arizona environment,” Fred Prozillo, the Nord McClintock Family vice president of preservation and collections at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundations, tells AD. While moving the animals, the sheepherders would live in pyramid-shaped tents, which offered cheap and readily available shelter. Inspired, “Wright bought a bunch of them for his apprentices to live in while they built [Taliesin West].” The architect arranged them in a series of ten sites in triangular grids with the idea that the arrangement would foster community among the fellows.

A tour group visits one of the shelters at Taliesin West.

Photo: Katherine Hernandez, courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

Of course, living in the desert had its challenges: It wasn’t uncommon to wake up to an animal asleep next to you or find yourself shivering on a night when it was particularly cold. So when students had free time, they’d try to improve their makeshift homes. “They’d add a concrete base to get it off the ground or maybe a roof; it would grow from this tent to a true shelter,” Prozillo says. Overtime, what was born from a basic human need grew to become an integral part of Wright’s Taliesin fellowship. “It was learning by doing,” Nikki Stewart, vice president and chief learning and engagement officer at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, says. “That was Wright’s philosophy on education.”

At the beginning of the winter season, fellows would either move in to a shelter that was started by a previous apprentice or move back into a shelter they had began working on the year before. This cycle saw the original sites developed into multiple iterations of different shelters. At the end of each season, Wright would come out and critique the student’s work. “They’d have a little party,” Prozillo says. “It was a wonderful opportunity for architects in training to figure out how to take an idea, translate it into a drawing, and figure out how to build it.”

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