Scottsdale, Arizona – The square symbol carved into the rock at the entrance reminded me of an areal view of an English hedge maze. The lines twisted at right angles in on themselves, tighter towards the centre and opening out towards the edges. The indigenous Hohokam tribes of Arizona had carved this particular symbol and others into the rocks some several thousand years ago. When the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright stumbled upon the petroglyphs in the 1930s, whilst building his new winter home and architect school, he decided to commandeer the symbol. It now heralds as the icon of Taliesin West.
Some archeologists speculate that the symbol represents hands clasping. To me it represents interconnectedness, and in that way feels like a fitting representation of what Taliesin West is all about.
Personally, I find the structure of Taliesin West itself ugly and dated, a clunky monstrosity with incredibly low ceilings in most parts. On reflection, perhaps it was all that concrete that I hated the most. Too cold and indifferent for my personal tastes. Or was it all the functional 1970s burnt orange decor? It definitely wasn’t a home I’d aspire to one day live in.
That said, one could still appreciate the ingenuity of its design. Built as Wright’s primary winter residence, the whole house sits at a cleverly chosen angle which allows for the maximum amount of sunshine to fall into the living spaces, additionally keeping the place warm without heating. This was most apparent in the appropriately named Garden Room, which on the brisk January morning that I toured was drenched in light and warmth.
I was also awed by the sunken Cabaret Theater room, which sits low so that revellers could watch the moon rise from their seats whilst indulging in a cocktail. More impressive though is how this room was built with six differing sized sides, which allows for almost perfect acoustics. One could hear the lightest whisper from the stage even from the far back corner of the space.
And then there was 96-foot-long expanse of the Drafting Studio, which sits at the heart of the building. Here Wright expertly incorporates expansive windows and an angular canvas roof to allow natural light to flood into the apprentice space, negating the need for artificial lighting in the studio. A design modern day environmentalists could only have dared dreamed of inventing back in the 30s.
Whilst I could somewhat image myself revelling in the evocative theater over cocktails, sipping a cup of tea and reading a book in the vaulted ceilings and panoramic desert vistas of the Garden Room, and practicing my architectural drawing skills in the Drafting Studio, I would have categorically revolted at having had to sleep in his wife Ogivanna’s personal living quarters. The foundations’ website describes the space as ‘refined’ and ‘sparse’. In actuality, the bedroom is a mere six foot deep by 8 foot long space with concrete floors and an unscreened door facing the garden. You had to leave the small and dank space to even get into the closet and toilet, which were in a separate part of the living quarters. In my opinion, an after thought in the overall design concept. A poorly executed one at that.
Where Wright did excel though was in his desire to blur the distinction between the inside and outside as much as possible, and perhaps here is where I found some element of beauty in this masterpiece. I loved how the structure had intermittent rectangular holes cut into the framework at various angles and levels to allow you to see the McDowell Mountains behind. The home seemed to intertwine into the landscape and melt them into one. From a distance, one could hardly notice its existence. This was exaggerated by the fact that the foundation of the building was constructed using the granite rocks that were found scattered around the foothills of the site.
A passionate lover of geometric designs and shapes, my dancing eyes were also regularly stimulated by the repeating 30-60-90 angular features throughout the campus. From the triangle-shaped paddling pool, to the octagonal fountain, and even to the succession of red square ventilation holes. The reoccurring shapes provided a harmony and peace even when their bold colours contrasted against the bland Sonoran desert background.
Also as a lover of art, there was an abundance of sculpture dotted throughout the premises, most with curvaceous forms, many inspired by a former dancer turned sculptress whose gently flowing lines could have been reminiscent of the desert wind gently sculpting its surrounding landscape.
As Wright said himself, “I was struck by the beauty of the desert, by the dry, clear sun-filled air, by the stark geometry of the mountains. … The design sprang out of itself, with no precedent and nothing following it.”
This is what makes Taliesin West a masterpiece. It’s integration and interconnectedness with the natural landscape it inhibits. So, maybe the Hokokam symbol as a an idea of two people holding hands is also representative here after all. Maybe what it depicts as two people could actually be nature and humans standing together in harmony.