We've reached the dog days of summer, that time when the heat and the flies form a mold over the landscape, squeezing you in-between; it is the limbo between vacation and school, the moment when everything seems to be almost still and slow in anticipation of something fresh.
It is a space I usually dread, but this year I have the good fortune to be spending this time in the “Valley of the Almighty Joneses,” the site of Taliesin East, in Spring Green, Wis. Each morning as I walk between my lodgings—Tan-y-deri, the meticulously restored 1907 home Frank Lloyd Wright designed for his sister—my office at the back of his home, and the studio, in what was originally the Hillside School, I experience summer not just as a time of suspension, but as a physical fullness, a rotundness and ripeness of the land that promises fruit and vistas around every corner.
A good part of the beauty of this land, which lies at the “Driftless Region,” an area of rolling hills spared by the flattening power of the last Ice Age, comes from thought and design. This is neither a natural space nor merely a productive farm. Frank Lloyd Wright not only placed his buildings with care on the hundreds of acres he assembled (and periodically sold off) over the decades he lived here, but he also planted the crops and pruned the trees with an eye to emphasize those contours and make you sense the rhythms of the landscape.
In his scheme, which has been restored by Taliesin Preservation under the direction of the ecologist and farmer Gary Zimmer, the various built structures are accentuations of, rather than focal points within, that landscape. When you look at the whole farm from the road, the house forms a human-made version of the rock falls that punctuate the cliffs and hills, while the Hillside School nestles into the valley’s spread as a monumental version of a farm house, with the studio behind forming its barn. The building that most clearly focuses your attention is the Midway Barn, a composition of red-painted storage structures knit together and into the landscape with what are now apartments.
It is the fields opening up to the valley’s breadth, the rows of corn rising up in rows to mark and measure the low hills, the patches of vegetables and flowers planted around the structures to bring nature at its most cultivated close to architecture’s geometries, the orchards crowning the rises, and the large trees that both dot the space and close ranks to mark its edges, that are the elements molding Taliesin into a composition that makes you see the landscape in a wholly new manner.
This is not just a garden in the English manner, either, but it is the willingness to shape the land (the original meaning of the word “landscape”) as a whole that makes Taliesin a work of art. Architecture here is not just the construction of buildings, but more the creation of relationships between the human-made and the natural. It is the shaping of a place that for Wright was the model for all of America, one that he enshrined in his Broadacre City proposals. Buildings and landscape together form another space, one that, in the Jeffersonian traditions, knits us together and to the landscape. If the beauty of Taliesin West is a proof of concept, then I think it might be time to go back to study the potential and implications of those visions as we confront our world of sprawl.