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Go West, Ionarts

I left a freezing Baltimore and 5" of snow early last Thursday morning to spend an extended weekend in the Scottsdale, Ariz. area. They had a rare rain storm sweep through on Friday, causing as much news coverage as a Baltimore snow event, with reporters standing in puddles taking measurements. I haven't been out here in a few years, other than connecting flights, so braving the 60 degree temperatures the Mrs. and I headed out to tour Frank Lloyd Wright's former winter camp ground, Taliesin West.

As with everything about Wright there is an amazing story and an adventure. In short, at 70, while most are considering their death, he had no money and few prospects for work, due to the depression and likely his ego. His third wife, Olgivanna came up with a brilliant idea to raise some cash, an apprenticeship program. Architecture students would pay Wright a tuition and slave/work for him designing, building, entertaining, washing his cars, anything. With this influx of cash Wright bought 500 acres of barren desert on a plateau outside of Scottsdale, then with a population of 500. They thought he was mad, of course, and maybe some truth there.

So every winter for the last 20 years of his life Wright and his entourage would migrate from Taliesin East, in Spring Green, Wisc., to Taliesin West, usually in a flotilla of red Cadillacs along route 66 (it must have been a sight). Wright was the first contemporary architect to practice an organic approach or philosophy to building, to follow the lead of nature, to be one with the natural surroundings; the desert was a perfect environment to experiment in.

For several seasons Wright and his followers lived in canvas tents, gradually building studios, meeting areas, a dining hall, an auditorium, and living quarters for the Wright family. The apprentices to this day still live in tents or rustic shelters. In time the work flowed in, along with enough money to maintain and expand Taliesin, and with Olgivanna's guidance, Frank's legacy is preserved and studied through the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the continuing apprenticeship program, which is now fully accredited. Amazingly, Wright produced over one-third of his work in this period, and at his death in 1959 Wright had over 300 projects in development, including the Guggenheim Museum.

At its best Taliesin West was an incredible rustic laboratory in the desert, begun by a 70-year-old man entering the peak of his career. Over time and exposure to the elements, the buildings have been in constant need of repair: concrete erodes, the wooden structures, once of redwood now use substituted woods are stained red, and as with most of Wrights designs, the roofs leak. Plantings were added, like bougainvillea and a citrus grove; would Wright have approved? There is another added tradition, tours of the Christmas lights -- started by Olgivanna, it's a source of income for the foundation; they seem totally out of place, surely he would not have allowed them. Part of me would like to see the camp fade back to the desert -- full circle. More images on Flickr.

If you're in the Scottsdale area another visionary architectural site is Paolo Soleri's Arcosanti. Started in the early 70s as a self-contained experiment in living, it's still a worthwhile visit; however, the site now seems more occupied by hippie squatters than the progressive dream of its beginning. The bakery on site is very good: try the brownies.

To the northwest of Flagstaff, the world awaits the completion of James Turrell's Roden Crater excavation, maybe by 2010 (the date is fluid). There have been a few write-ups and one Sixty Minutes expose, but the project remains off limits to most visitors. Here are a few Flickr images, from artists who managed to find a way in. They warn of the danger of trekking through the desert -- think vultures and bones. The site looks amazing, and I look forward to visiting someday. This area is a magnet for this type of exploration -- cosmic alignment?


jfl said...

Just how many of those 'brownies' did you have?? :-)

Mark Barry said...

one, maybe 2, I lost count. Luckily Jethro Tull was on the ipod.

libby said...

The heck with the pix. Please email me one of the "brownies."

We saw the Dylan movie last night, and the director/writer must have been smoking crack. Fortunately, the soundtrack was great.

Mark Barry said...

I'm sending them out as holiday gifts. You'll think your living room is Roden Crater, groovy baby....

Anonymous said...

I'll have what she's having!