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Seventy five years ago, before the development of the Scottsdale, Ariz., area, Frank Lloyd Wright drove up a single-lane, dirt road and bought more than 550 acres of land in the Sonoran Desert in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains. The banker told Wright not to spend his money on “such worthless land,” but Wright had the forethought to buy enough property so that the structure he built would remain uninterrupted by people and in tune with the surrounding desert landscape. Since the 400 acres surrounding the structure belongs to Wright, it remains uninterrupted as it did more than seven decades ago. Taliesin West, Wright’s winter home, architecture school and studio, exemplifies his ability to harmoniously integrate indoor and outdoor spaces.
Among the best moments of my visit to Taliesin West were precisely those that gave me insight into Wright’s vision. At the Taliesin West bookstore, visitors must sign up for a tour of the property. On the Insights Tour, a 90-minute guided walk through, inside and around the house, I learned about the building, the Sonoran Desert landscape, why and how the structure was built, as well as background on Frank Lloyd Wright, his personal life and his philosophy.
According to my guide, in 1932, Wright was not getting much business, so his wife suggested that they ought to be “building the builders of buildings.” Taliesin West was their experiment — a way to learn by doing. As such, the building was always a work in progress and Wright and his apprentices made innovations and improvements to the building for more than 20 years.
Sustainable architecture, green buildings, LEED designations and eco-conscious and organic materials are all buzz words today but Wright, before his time in many ways, strongly believed in working with mainly found and natural materials. Walls were built using desert rock stacked with wood and concrete made onsite. Room after room at Taliesin West showcase Wright’s mastery of creating natural light and his ability to use geometry to innovate. The Garden Room, a cozy living room for entertaining with a piano, Wright’s designed chairs and sofas and a fireplace, is surrounded by expansive views of the garden via large windows and a wall that blocks the view of wires and polls built in the 1960s. The Cabaret Theater was another favorite of mine — built low to the ground in an imperfect hexagonal shape, the theater is 95 percent acoustically perfect allowing guests, no matter how far back they are sitting, to hear the speaker.
Guests visiting in the summertime should come prepared with sunscreen, hats and breathable clothing as temperatures can reach up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoon. During my tour, water was provided and the tour moved from outdoor to indoor spaces frequently. Indeed, Taliesin West, like Wright’s most famous structure Fallingwater, beautifully demonstrates his ability to work with, rather than against, nature, but this was his winter site, so guests should take extra precautions in the summertime.
Visitors to Taliesin West have a choice of tour, ranging in time, focus and price. The 90-minute Insights Tour is the most popular tour and, in the summer months, is offered hourly from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tickets are $32 for adults; $28 for active military and students 13 and older; and $17 for children ages 4-12. Other tours are offered less frequently, such as the Behind The Scenes Tour, a three-hour tour which includes mid-morning tea and the chance to speak with Wright associates, and the Architecture Discovery Tour, which is geared to school-age children and their parents. Visitors can also pre-arrange group tours at special prices for groups of 15 or more by contacting the tour manger at 408-627-5340. Small groups and individuals can also arrange private tours with an advance reservation of seven days. During July and August, Taliesin West is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Tour hours and options vary by season.