Saturday, 21 April 2012

The great Arizona road trip -1

On the road to Phoenix: the Saguaro cactus of southern Arizona

The thermometer registers 82 degrees Fahrenheit, as we set off from Tucson on the first leg of our road trip north to the Grand Canyon. As a stay in Arizona would not be complete without visiting Taliesin West, the winter home, studio and school of the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, our first stop is Scottsdale near Phoenix.

It is four in the afternoon by the time we reach our destination. The road curving through the Saguaro cactus, mesquite and scrub shimmers in the heat and the temperature has risen to 94 degrees Fahrenheit. We walk into the cool, air conditioned visitor reception to discover that we are just in time for the last guided tour of the day.

Taliesin West: desert home of rock, wood and canvas

Equipped with bottles of chilled water and sunhats, we set off to explore the extraordinary buildings that were created from rock, redwood and canvas, on land bought for virtually nothing in the arid Sonoran desert during the Great Depression. The project evolved from a series of tent like structures to become the inter-connected buildings that stand today. The camping principle remains - every architectural student who gains a place at the school run by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation learns through building, is required to build his or her own shelter for the first year, with a budget of no more than $1000 plus donated materials.

Greening the desert?
We are a small party, Mother and Father of two Precocious Children, an Italian Student,  plus me and husband Rod. As we pass by lush, irrigated lawns, non-indigenous flowering plants and formal pools, Father of Precocious Children comments on the incongruity of this formal landscaping on a desert site designed by a man obsessed with creating buildings that mould into their natural surroundings. Our docent (as such guides are termed in the US) struggles a little with this question but eventually assures us that it was all on account of Frank Lloyd Wright wanting to recreate the feel of his native Wisconsin. We exchange raised eyebrows and wonder when the turf was laid.

We pass through an oddly shaped door to the first room on the site, which was Wright's office. Our docent's audience participation technique works best with the Precocious Children, whose arms are almost permanently raised to answer or ask questions. He finds it tougher going with us grown-ups. Describing how canvas was used for roofing, apparently for economy, our docent asks us why this is such a bad idea. Before we have time to gather a response, he tells us that canvas clearly won't withstand a tough climate. What about all those covered wagons that carried pioneers across this vast country, I muse. A Prairie Schooner in good repair was said to offer almost as good a shelter as a house, according to Oregon Trail historians.

What about Levi Strauss and his original miner's trousers, mutters Rod. Not to mention the pleasure Wright took in the soft diffused light created by canvas roofing, which he had first experienced living in tents near Phoenix when working on a resort project in 1929. (The project, like many others, was abandoned because of the Great Depression.)

The man himself (right)
Father of the Precocious Children notices that a photograph of Frank Lloyd Wright shows him sitting in front of a model of his iconic structure for the Guggenheim Museum.  "Did he work on that design in the studio whilst living here?" he asks. The response is that the Guggenheim is in New York, and this studio is in Phoenix. Ummm.....

More is to come. Our docent is keen to emphasise that Wright could do anything he wanted at Taliesin West (provided he had the money, presumably) because he didn't have to pander to a client's wishes. This becomes something of a recurring theme on the tour. Father of the Precocious Children looks thoughtful. It transpires later that his uncle commissioned a Frank Lloyd Wright house. 

The docent points to the windows above the photographs, and tells us that for several years, there was no glazing at Taliesin West because Wright so enjoyed the desert elements blowing free through the cabins. However, whilst he might not have had a client to pander to at Taliesin West, he did have a wife to satisfy. And this wife, his third, proved to be more than a match for this charismatic and determined man. Whilst as enthusiastic as Wright about living in the desert, Olgivanna drew the line at sharing her home with snakes, scorpions and sand. So glazed windows were duly installed.

Indian petroglyphs found  at Taliesin West
Olgivanna Ivanovna Lazovich was a Montenegran ballerina married to a Russian architect when Wright first saw her in 1924, seated near him at the Chicago Opera. Wright was also married, to his second wife, and his affair with an exotic woman thirty years younger was regarded as scandalous. (He already had developed a reputation as something of a womaniser.) Four years later, they married  - a marriage that was to last for 32 years - and work began on Taliesin West.

The tour continues and we marvel at the magnificent 56ft by 34 ft (17m by 10 m) living room, a wall of windows looking over the garden and full of Wright designed seating to ensure comfort for the many people attending the celebrity social gatherings  he and Olgivanna hosted. We admire the Japanese painting on the walls of Olgivanna’s modestly sized bedroom, which is next door to Wright’s larger bedroom with its strange bed divided in two by a partition. Precocious Girl Child asks why Olgivanna and Frank did not sleep together. The docent answers that this was quite common in those days – with an aside to the grown-ups that we should not try to draw any of our own conclusions.

The view from the architectural school

Precocious Boy Child’s question about Wright's strange divided bed was easier to answer. If Wright chose to sleep on the side of the bed closer to the wall, he was not to be disturbed by anyone – even Olgivanna. If he was lying on the other side of the partition closer to the door, then he was happy to be disturbed.

We move on to have a glimpse at the studio filled with students and walk through the rather claustrophobic cabaret complete with piano positioned in a niche carved from the rock and festooned with strings of fairy lights. Finally we are shepherded into the auditorium, the largest enclosed space at Taliesin West.  There is no proscenium arch, the asymetric stage curtains swinging back on rails into the wings, and the large deep stage was designed for the ballet and theatre performances that Olgivanna loved to arrange. We hear how she continued to live at Taliesin West after Wright's death, aged 91 in 1959.

Mother of the Precocious Children suddenly speaks. "Isn't today the anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright's death?" she asks the docent. He shuffles and mutters something about maybe it being sometime around now. She retrieves her smartphone from her bag and presses a few buttons. "Yes, it is today, 9 April." she announces. "Now isn't that just marvellous?" We all murmur in agreement, not only marvelling at synchronicity but also at the technology that can provide the right answer in an instant.

I call upon technology myself later that day, to find answers to some of  the questions that were left in the air and particularly to find out more about the redoubtable Olgivanna Lloyd Wright. Her influence on a giant of architecture was profound, and indeed many saw her as too controlling, particularly when continuing to manage Taliesin West, the school and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation until - and even after - her death at 86 in 1985. Her instructions  that Wright's body be exhumed from Wisconsin, cremated and the ashes mixed with hers for burial in the garden at Taliesin West  were carried out -  despite being against the local law and the wishes of his family.

But Wright clearly had found the right woman for him in the last thirty years of his life. As he said of her in his memoirs, "A woman is, for man, the best of true friends, if man will let her be one."

Rock against rock: Taliesin West roofline

All photographs by Sandi Rhys Jones

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