What does it mean to make organic architecture? A thesis student here at the School of Architecture at Taliesin has pushed the definition to its limits—or, depending on your perspective, to its core—with a shelter woven out of twigs. Dylan Pero’s construction, which he calls “Nest,” is a marvel of messy architecture. Festooned with cholla balls (those nasty bundles of barbs also known as “jumping cactus”), it accommodates a bed as well as weeds. The project is part of our capstone thesis program that asks each graduating student to design, build, and inhabit a desert shelter while exploring ideas of what it means to live in the modern world.
The shelter program got its start after Frank Lloyd Wright began his annual migration to Taliesin West in 1937. Wright thought of the site in the Sonoran Desert outside of Phoenix, Ariz., as a “desert camp”: its common buildings were originally all large canvas tents built over low walls assembled from boulders on the site. At first, the architect's apprentices lived around those core structures in Basque sheepherders’ tents that they erected on concrete bases or pads. Successive generations replaced those shelters with more and more elaborate structures that they fabricated themselves. Each one became an experiment in how to learn from the master, as well as in how to design a dwelling and use materials in response to the desert setting. Three years ago, we made the process an official part of our curriculum.
Pero’s project started with a fascination with those nasty cholla balls, a daily annoyance as you move around our 500-acre site. He became fascinated with their structure and found that, if you boiled, baked, or froze them, you could make them less prickly even as they retained their Velcro-like quality. Originally, his plan was to build his structure solely from the balls, but he soon realized that he could not scale up his experiments. Instead, he turned to the remains of an existing shelter that had originally been a domed dwelling that rose around a central chimney made with sand-filled sacks (students aren't allowed to build on open desert and must reuse one of more than 60 already-standing pads or shelters). Pero was inspired by experiments in the merging of natural elements with human-made forms, a sort of semi-organic grafting, carried out by Ferdinand Ludwig and Daniel Schoenle. He also pursued Achim Menges’ ideas of “jamming” and “aggregate architecture” based on a study of birds’ nests.
The result is a spiral that unfolds around the remnants of the old chimney, which Pero filled in with concrete to help stabilize the rest of construction. He similarly reinforced the dead remains of two cacti. Between these structural supports, he strung ropes that he tied around rocks at their base, some of them in gabion baskets. These served as an armature through which he wove material he found on site: dead branches and twigs, but also metal fragments that had accumulated there over the years. Helped by several of his classmates, he developed a dense nest that, although it will not shelter him completely from the rain (he will spread tarps over his structure in inclement weather, as many other students do), will provide shade from the desert sun and shield him from the site’s often strong winds.
You enter Nest through a narrow, curving passageway, winding your way around the remains of the chimney until the space opens up to a small work area that leads back out to a garden Pero is currently landscaping. Off to one side is the sleeping area, including a bed raised on layers of rocks and cholla balls. From there, Pero can glimpse the outside through a window he left in the woven covering. In this simple and small sequence, he has achieved a remarkable variety of spaces that unfold with a fluidity matching the continual motion of the surrounding woven plant and inorganic material.
The effect is messy, but coherent. The shelter recalls the traditional structures nomads have built in similar landscapes around the world, as well as bringing to mind Gottfried Semper’s belief that all architecture developed from the “art of wall fitting” or “vertical carpets” made out of plant material. You can also find echoes of other structures in the American West, as in the pair of cacti framing the south elevation, which recall the gateways to western ranches.
Pero planned Nest with precision, as evidenced by the working drawings he submitted to obtain building permission from the site's owner, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, but he also let the realities of what he discovered in the building process guide him in the shelter’s development: He was “learning by doing,” as our program’s motto is. Not only did he adjust the forms for both structural stability and beauty, but he also designed around the plants and rocks he found on the site. Weeds grow by his bedside, and various animals, from birds to packrats, apparently find his dwelling as welcoming as he does.
The project’s qualities—an un-scrolling space, fluid forms, and intricate details that bring together disparate materials—are remarkable, creating a dappled interior in a shape that evokes both the history of human shelter and the landscape of the desert. What makes it even more beautiful is its ephemeral quality: It changes throughout the day, and will also evolve over time, perhaps sprouting its own natural extensions as other parts erode, one day becoming a home for future students as well as animals. All that is, at least to this observer, a pretty workable definition of what organic architecture might mean today.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.