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Reflections on Taliesin West

The great room of Taliesin West.

Shelter, part of Maslows second hierarchy of needs, has evolved over time and the design of housing has taken many forms. I have always been curious of what it takes to make good spaces that evoke a euphoric sense of joy. How do we prioritize design, and what measures can we take to ensure design can be something everyone can enjoy? Reflecting on my discussions a couple of weeks at our previous City Talk on housing and reacting to an itch of curiosity, I head to Arizona to visit Taliesin West and see how design thinking was utilized to build one of the most recognized houses and architectural studios. 

Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's beloved winter home and the bustling headquarters of the Taliesin Fellowship was skillfully handcrafted and maintained almost entirely by Wright and his apprentices. Launching in 1937, the facility was forged piece by piece over many years from the very desert it sits in, sharing it's collection of rocks, sand, and colors throughout. Built using human dimensions, in this case Frank Lloyd Wright, the space contracts and expands at intervals, slightly nudging each visitor on a carefully orchestrated journey. As spaces unfold and twist, subtle experiments are discovered; such as the recessed lighting used to illuminate the ceiling, Wright's favorite art embedded into the walls, and aisle lighting on the floor to deal with pesky visitors arriving late to a show and disrupting the performance with their lanterns.

Is it sad to say I was memorized by the intuition of the design? Even as aged Taliesin has become, it shines in comparison to most of the development I see in Fort Worth, and it was built by apprentices! A hallmark to design thinking and the principals of learning by doing, the Taliesin Fellowship challenged each apprentice that enrolled to first build their own shelter in the desert, comprised of the very materials they would study and eventually use to add to Taliesin. What can be seen as a living piece of architecture, the building evolved organically with each semester, functioning as a design lab and encouraging constant tinkering. It was a hub for creative problem solving and prioritized the human element with each design or alteration. Part of the tenor at Taliesin had the apprentices take on various roles to accommodate different aspects of being an architect. Wright not only saw value in teaching design with a hands on figure it out as you go approach, but he insisted these young architects also learn how to entertain clients and how to work in the type of spaces they would eventually design. Each apprentice would switch roles with some working in the kitchen, to some working the room, to others escorting guest.

Apprentice's solution to installing glass around Wright's treasured artifact.

Although not completely original at the time, The Bauhaus had been started 18 years prior, Taliesin did come with a unique niche of utilizing design in an organic way to address unique problems and customize each element to the space. Additionally, it was one of the few schools teaching architecture and design to women. Yet, one can look at the practice with a suspicious eye. Going back on my previous statement of development in Fort Worth, Wright had an extreme advantage when compared to private developers, labor willing to pay to build his masterpiece. One could say that the exploitation of these apprentices helped fuel Wright's lifestyle and practice in a time when architecture was suffering from the depression and WWII. If the apprentices were not working the fields, serving dinner, or tending to Wrights clients, they where forming concrete to expand Taliesin, eventually building spaces to house Wright and his wife at the studio. Is this the price we pay for good design?

The auditorium is designed with an offset hexagonal shape, funneling sound effectively through the space.

Today, the fellowship is still open and follows some of the original traditions, challenging students to build new and innovative housing from the materials in the desert. Some of the spaces, like the auditorium still carry a level of amazement, especially when you consider the acoustic ratings are at 97% for a space designed over 50 years ago. There is a beauty that resonates with Taliesin West that unfortunately will be hard to satisfy back home, especially as buildings become stripped of design elements more so as raising asset value becomes a higher priority.

So my final thoughts on Taliesin West? Without a doubt an interesting piece of architecture and design thinking. Arguably, the learn by doing method is something to revisit, as its application for educating and building tomorrow's problem solvers can not be overlooked. As I develop my organization to address difficult challenges, it is interesting how an unfiltered design on the fly approach could be used to navigate complexities and provide opportunities to experiment and innovate as Taliesin did. Yet, given the apprentices are the main reason the school reached the scale it did, is it safe to say they should be given the credit for the project instead of Wright? Is exploitation or cheating the system the only means to achieve exceptional design? Can it be justified if the end product improves more that it damages? Are there lessons we can extract from the shelters the student painstaking piece together? Or is all of this simply a way for an institution or municipality to bypass cost? Whatever the answer, Taliesin remains as a staple to architecture and Wright's legacy.

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