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Taliesin West: Frank Lloyd Wright's Vision of Desert Living

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If the average Phoenician decided to build a home/compound out of surrounding desert materials, we'd probably be surrounded by primitive mud huts.

But in the head and hands of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the concept of using natural materials to build yields breathtaking structures like those at Taliesin West, Wright's winter home, studio, and architecture school nestled in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains.

And these are no simple structures. There are two theaters, a music pavilion, a garden, a pool and fountain, and of course, Wright's winter living quarters, all connected by elaborate terraces and walkways.

The walls are made of wood forms filled with local desert rocks and concrete, and many rooms use natural lighting. It's a marvel of architecture from a man known for his marvelous structures, which include the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, New York. So it shouldn't be surprising that even on a sweltering Saturday afternoon, with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, large crowds gather at Taliesin West to take guided tours.

Guided tours are the only way to get inside the Taliesin West buildings, and they're a bit pricey (the cheapest is a one-hour tour of select structures that's $24 per person).

But tourists and fans of architecture must think it's worth it, because they show up in droves. And there's plenty to learn and see in just an hour.

Wright named Taliesin West after his summer home in Spring Green, Wisconsin (called -- surprise -- Taliesin). He and his team of architecture students, fondly called the Taliesin Fellowship, began making winter trips to Arizona in 1933.

In 1937, Wright purchased 500 acres in the Sonoran Desert preserve. At the time, a single acre cost him $3.50.

In his autobiography, published in 1943, Wright wrote, "Finally I learned of a site twenty-six miles from Phoenix, across the desert of the vast Paradise Valley. On up to a great mesa in the mountains. On the mesa just below McDowell Peak we stopped, turned, and looked around. The top of the world."

As he designed and constructed Taliesin West, Wright made the most of the natural resources available to him. He used rocks for the walls, and made sure flat rocks were facing outward and filled in with boulders to conserve concrete. In the drafting room, Wright built a roof out of translucent canvas to utilize the natural sunlight (it was later replaced by plastic because of sun damage). "There were simple characteristic silhouettes to go by, tremendous drifts and heaps of sunburned desert rocks were nearby to be used," Wright wrote in his autobiography. "We got it all together with the landscape."

Of course, there was one resource that was not abundantly available to Wright in the Sonoran Desert: water. This was remedied by the construction of a well deep enough to provide water to the whole compound. The project cost about $10,000 (roughly the equivalent of more than $156,000 today).

The various buildings at Taliesin West, though designed decades ago using natural resources, are still amazingly state-of-the-art.

The Cabaret Theater is a six-sided structure made out of rock and concrete, but because of its almost-hexagonal shape, it's said that someone sitting in the back row can hear a faint whisper from a speaker on stage.

The living room of Wright's home, which he called the "Garden Room," is 56 feet long and 34 feet wide and lined with windows that give stunning views of the surrounding mountains. (Wright's private office is included in the $24 one hour tour, but getting into the Garden Room requires forking over $32 for the 90-minute tour).

All of the furniture in the living quarters was designed by Wright and built mostly by apprentices. Examples of his furniture and decorations designs can be seen in the gift shop at Taliesin West.

Wright died in 1959 at the age of 91, and Taliesin West was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982. Today, it functions as the main campus of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and hosts tours every day of the week (though tours are closed on Wednesdays in July and August).

Taliesin West is at 12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard in Scottsdale. For more information, call 480-860-2700 or visit

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