Story and photos by Michael Shapiro
As a kid in New York, I was dazzled by the city’s soaring buildings: the towering Empire State, the wedge-like Flatiron, the art deco Chrysler with its menacing gargoyles. But the building that made perhaps the deepest impression was the Guggenheim Museum. On Fifth Avenue, across the street from Central Park, the museum’s architecture is like nothing else in New York. It doesn’t rise angular and mighty over the city and dominate the skyline; its rounded front, only a few stories above the street, seductively invites you in to explore its spiraling curves.
The Guggenheim’s design doesn’t so much shout, “Look, pay attention to me!” Rather, its confidence seems to say: “I know who I am and I don’t care what you think. I don’t have to fit in with the crowd.” When first seeing it, I felt a surge of curiosity, a sense that anything’s possible. I later learned that the Guggenheim’s first curator and director, Hilla Rebay, said to its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, “I want a temple of spirit, a monument!”
So on a recent trip to Arizona, celebrating the centennial of its statehood this year, I spent a day with Frank Lloyd Wright. Not literally of course—he died in 1959 at the age of 91—but by visiting his home, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale and meeting with one of his students from the 1950s.
A Building Grown From the Desert
I set out from the Arizona Biltmore, where Wright’s art deco-esque blocks are a central design element, on a clear crisp March morning. From the Phoenix hotel, I drove about a half hour to see Taliesin West and to meet Arnold Roy, a student in Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship starting in 1952. The suburban sprawl gave way to gloriously open desert landscapes of muscular saguaros, graceful ocotillo and stout barrel cacti.
I didn’t expect anything palatial, but I thought I’d find structures among the saguaros that reflected Wright’s monumental ego. He famously said, in a 1957 interview with CBS’s Mike Wallace, “I’ve been accused of saying I was the greatest architect in the world, and if I’d said so I don’t think it would be very arrogant.” Then there’s the story, perhaps apocryphal, of Wright stating his occupation during a trial as “the world’s greatest living architect.” The judge asked how he could say such a thing. Wright’s reply: “I’m under oath.”
The low-slung buildings on the 500-acre desert property are the epitome of humility, however, hugging the ground as part of the desertscape, seemingly not protruding from the land but receding into it. Just as the Guggenheim perfectly reflected the wildly experimental modern art of mid-century New York, Taliesin West ideally complements the tawny desert surrounding Wright’s home.
Perhaps his most earthy structure, the one that best highlights his ingenuity, is this refuge in the foothills of Arizona’s McDowell Mountains that served as his home for the last 22 years of his astonishingly productive life. Wright, whose mother’s ancestors came from Wales, named Taliesin after a 6th-century Welsh poet.
At Taliesin West, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, Wright created buildings that were “a grace to the landscape,” as he said, “rather than a disgrace.” He designed his buildings to grow “organically” out of the land and felt the built environment should be an extension of the natural world and a way to embrace our shared humanity.
Beginning in the mid-1930s when Arizona had been a state for less than a quarter century, Wright would travel each December from his home in Wisconsin to the then-remote Sonoran Desert outside Scottsdale. After Wright endured a bout with pneumonia in 1936, his wife Olgivanna urged him to spend winters in the salubrious desert climate. From 1937 on, the couple made annual migrations to this new home.
“I was struck by the beauty of the desert,” Wright said, “by the dry, clear, sun-drenched air, by the startling geometry of the mountains. The entire region was an inspiration and strong contrast to the pastoral landscape of our native Wisconsin. And out of that experience a revelation came for the design of these buildings.”
A Tuxedo and a Tent
Lean, with a close-cropped white beard and lit up with the alacrity of a man who loves his work, Arnold Roy greeted me in one of the corridors that frame the land. Roy, now 80, still lives on the property and serves as an archivist for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
“I met Frank Lloyd Wright at the Plaza Hotel (in New York) while he was working on the Guggenheim,” Roy told me. “He said, ‘Go out West and we’ll try you out.’ That was the start of my architecture career.”
Like Wright’s other students during Taliesin’s early days, Roy spent his eight-year apprenticeship at Taliesin West in a canvas tent. It had been tent-dwelling students who’d built Taliesin’s 40,000 square feet from the ground up during the final two decades of Wright’s life.
“He was 70 years old when he came to Taliesin,” Roy said as we sipped tea. “There was nothing here, he was shy on cash, the apprentices were eager but that’s all you could say about them. And they built this place—by hand.”