In December 1937, Frank Lloyd Wright purchased 600 acres of arid scrubland 15 miles northeast of Phoenix. For the next two decades, until his death in 1959, he would spend his winters building and rebuilding the home, studio, and school that came to be known as Taliesin West, a Sun Belt counterpart to his longtime home in Wisconsin. Everything on the land was built to harmonize with the natural setting. Walls of “desert rubble stone” were erected by pouring concrete among boulders harvested from the hills. Even in the interior spaces, Wright wrote in his 1943 memoir, “the desert air and the birds flew clear through.”
Today, the idyllic compound is in need of restoration: Roofs and pipes leak, and Wright’s original vision has been compromised by later additions. In the fall of 2012, the Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) Foundation, the steward of the Arizona site, the Taliesin estate in Wisconsin, and collections of Wright's work, appointed Gunny Harboe, FAIA, principal of Chicago-based Harboe Architects, to develop a master plan to restore and preserve Taliesin West.
It took more than 16 months of research, interviews, and
combing through thousands of photographs, documents, and butcher-paper drawings
to assemble an exhaustive account of the site in its heyday and since. Finally,
this fall, Harboe began presenting the preservation
master plan to the public, first at Taliesin West in October, and then at
the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in November, where he spoke wistfully about the seductive impact of Wright’s early designs. “Some
of that meaning has been eroded,” he said. “Our goal is to get back to that
The resulting 740-page document is a blueprint for the site’s architectural aspirations, though it leaves out an estimated schedule or budget. One of Harboe’s goals is to have Taliesin West (along with nine other Wright buildings) anointed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a distinction that could further boost the profile of the compound and bolster fundraising for what promises to be a long and expensive restoration process.
In other respects, the future of Taliesin West is murky. Last year, the foundation and the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, the descendant of the apprentice-architect and fellowship program Wright began in 1932, split into two separately incorporated bodies. They did so in response to a new requirement of the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits the school, that “accredited institutions must be separately incorporated from sponsoring organizations.” Now the school faces a fundraising deadline at year’s end to secure its independence from the foundation. (The current dean of the school, Aaron Betsky, is a regular contributor to ARCHITECT.) If those efforts fail, the school may cease to exist at the end of this month, a blow that the school’s supporters say would be irreparable to Taliesin West’s identity. “The school was integral to the way the place functioned, to the way the people lived,” says Don Fairweather, who studied and worked under Wright between 1948 and 1952, and who served on the foundation board between 2007 and February 2015.
As power lines and ranch homes encroached on Wright’s desert utopia over the years, the way of life that one Wright pupil described as akin to that of a Saudi shepherd camp evolved into something more modern and conventional. The canvas roofs that could be rope-trimmed or raised like sails were replaced with fixed acrylic panels; air conditioning was installed, and a swimming pool dug. New construction obscured internal sightlines and valley views. “There were some additions that have compromised the original design integrity of the place,” Harboe explains to me. Those include a handful of original structures rebuilt in steel, and the glass-bound expansion of the private quarters of William Wesley Peters and Gene Masselink, Wright’s son-in-law and a Taliesin apprentice, and Wright’s secretary, respectively.
Dismantling and in some cases rebuilding those elements will
ultimately be one objective of the restoration. To that end, Harboe divided
the site into four zones of descending architectural significance. The first
zone, which includes the Office, the Studio, the Kiva, Cabaret, and much of the
central landscape, is considered the most integral to Wright’s legacy and will
be familiar to anyone who has toured the site. The second and third zones
include structures that have been reconstructed or modified after Wright’s
death, but nevertheless are of historical significance, such as the Dining
Room, Shops, and the Pavilion. Buildings in the fourth and final zone comprise
a record of the Taliesin Fellowship, but are not Wright’s work. These structures,
including the East Wing, Atrium, Library, and Fellowship Pool, may be renovated
or removed entirely.
The plan details more pedestrian issues and repairs, too. The older buildings are plagued by termite damage, deteriorated roofs, and outdated wiring. In the Drafting Studio, for example, Harboe calls for patching non-matching wall segments, replacing rafters, restoring the concrete floor, stripping corrosion from metalwork, and repainting doors. And that fixed acrylic-panel roof? The plan suggests scuttling it in favor of an operable system that reprises Wright’s fabric panels.
Perhaps the biggest challenge Harboe faced in creating the preservation master plan is that Taliesin West, more than any of Wright’s creations, was subject to the architect’s incessant tinkering, which often went unrecorded. Like a sketch, it could be as easily altered as lines on paper, a belief that Wright’s wife and disciples took to heart after his death.
“His architectural research was building,” says Reed Kroloff, a former trustee of the Foundation and the past director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. That makes restoration and preservation at Taliesin, Kroloff observes, a more fluid and interpretative task than at, say, Fallingwater. “It was intended to be an architectural laboratory, so when do you cut that off and turn it into a specimen?”
Some aspects of Wright’s evolving design, for example, could
potentially be restored to the way they were in years prior to Wright’s death.
“It’s not a date of significance, it’s a period of significance,” Sean Malone,
the president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, pointed out during the
public presentation of the master plan at the MoMA. “And that
gives us leaves a little leeway.”
Looming over the preservation master plan’s careful detailing of prescriptive repairs is the final unknown: the fate of the FLW School of Architecture. For its part, the plan allows for some flexibility by reserving the fourth zone of buildings to be addressed based on future programmatic needs. But for alumni, in particular, the school represents the spirit of the site. “That’s what Taliesin West was meant to be: a college campus,” says William Scott, secretary of the Taliesin Fellows, the school’s alumni group. “You take that away, and it becomes a house museum.” In other words, Wright’s gift lies both in the buildings he designed and in the community he created.
Harboe’s plan states that the educational and residential community at Taliesin West should be retained and strengthened. Malone says that the fate of the school would have little bearing on the restoration of the site because education will always play a central role. “It will always be one of the truly special things about Taliesin West—to have the opportunity for an immersion residential experience, where people live and create,” he says.
Several alumni leaders, however, have expressed doubts that the foundation could develop a new educational program of parallel depth and worth. In 2014, before the current pathway to the school’s independence had been drawn up, a member of the academic leadership (which is separate from that of the foundation) told ARCHITECT that he felt the foundation was moving toward shutting the school down.
Indeed, according to sources familiar with the foundation
board’s discussions, support for the school was a divisive issue in the
boardroom—and some within the foundation wanted to see the school closed
altogether. Malone strongly disagrees with that characterization and notes that
the foundation board voted unanimously in favor of the current path for the
school’s independence. But some observers considered that path, a response to the new Higher Learning Commission requirements, to be unduly onerous. By year's end, the school, which has an average enrollment of about 20
students, has to raise $2 million—a sum on par with the foundation’s 2014 intake
from contributions, grants, and membership fees. [Dec. 22, 2015 update: The FLW School of Architecture's fundraising goal has been met. Read what's next for the school.]
Many Taliesin fellows perceived this turn of events as a conflict between architectural sightseeing—the foundation’s greatest source of income—and education, its greatest expense. “It’s become a venue for tourism, basically,” says Kimbal Thompson, AIA, Taliesin Fellows president. The only new construction project that the preservation plan calls for is a visitor’s center.And yet, it’s not hard to imagine how Wright’s social and structural bequests could be entwined. In the not-too-distant past, the mercurial architect would return to Taliesin West each fall from Wisconsin with a fresh eye and put his apprentices to work. Aaron Betsky, the dean of the school, says the preservation plan, which he admires, could provide a unique and compelling learning opportunity—an echo of the site’s origins. “My motto is: The students built Taliesin West,” he says, “and they should rebuild it.”
Read more about the FLW School of Architecture's fundraising success here.
Note: The headline of the article was updated since first publication.