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On the Wright Track in Arizona

A tour Taliesin West in Scottsdale, where Frank Lloyd Wright and his band of apprentices built an architectural gem. Like most of the master's buildings, it has a story to tell.

November 08, 1998|Susan Spano | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Taliesin West, built by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1937, rests low on a mesa at the foot of the cactus-mottled McDowell Mountains northeast of Phoenix, with little to announce it but a stand of power lines the architect abhorred. Named for Wright's beloved Wisconsin farm-country home, Taliesin West is now a National Historic Landmark and home of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The foundation maintains two Taliesins (the original in Wisconsin and this one), archives that contain about 22,000 original drawings, Wright's still-functioning design firm and the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, which grew out of a fellowship of young apprentices who paid for the privilege of working at the master's shoulder.

Though Wright's fortunes waxed and waned during his long life (he was born in 1867 and died in 1959, at age 91), he is now considered foremost among American architects. His ideas continue to inspire as well as mystify, and he is credited with plans for about 800 buildings, including his enchanting first home and studio in Oak Park, Ill., Pennsylvania's Fallingwater (ranked by many architects as the most important American building of the last century), the modernist S.C. Johnson & Son Administration Center in Racine, Wis., and the visionary Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Thousands of visitors pay their respects to these and other Wright buildings every year, and the shelves in libraries sag under the weight of tomes written about him. And this week filmmaker Ken Burns weighs in on the Wright legacy as well, with a three-hour PBS television documentary on the architect (airing Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 9 on KCET).

My own appreciation for Wright began about a year ago with a casual visit to the recently restored Pope-Leighey house in northern Virginia. It is one of the dwellings the architect called Usonian (for the U.S.), designed to be affordable and to transform the lives of the ordinary people who lived in them. For instance, the Pope-Leighey house lacks an attic and adequate closet space because Wright felt Americans were too materialistic. Besides making me yearn to live in a Usonian, the experience convinced me that pictures and words cannot express the genius of Wright's best buildings, which act overtly and covertly on those who go to see them.

When I moved to Southern California recently, I saw houses designed by Wright's famous disciples Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler. Then last summer I toured his Oak Park home and studio, which speaks so eloquently of the young Wright, straining to move out of the orbit of his employer and architectural mentor, Louis Sullivan. There he brought his bride, Catherine Tobin, and quickly sired six children, later abandoning them all for the wife of an Oak Park client.

When the opportunity came, I was eager to see the Arizona Taliesin (pronounced tally-EH-sin, which means "shining brow" in Welsh) and signed up for a three-hour guided visit called the Behind the Scenes Tour ($35). I'd read Brendan Gill's biography of Wright, both a curse and a blessing because to know Wright is not necessarily to like him.

In the book, "Many Masks," Gill portrays Wright as a great artist but an arrogant man who manipulated and misled clients, refused to live within his means and brought pain to many of the people who loved him. "Despite his rich legacy," Burns recently wrote in Vanity Fair magazine, "there is something inexcusable about Wright." Consequently, for those familiar with the biographical details, every Wright building tells a story. It's hard to visit one without recalling the particular mess he was mired in at the time it rose.

Taliesin West took shape during the somewhat less turbulent, prodigiously productive last 20 years of Wright's life, when the master and his entourage made annual migrations between Wisconsin and Arizona, heading south shortly after Halloween and returning just after an Easter brunch. They were a hard-working community of kindred spirits who threw themselves with equal vigor into any task, from drafting Wright's plans to dyeing hundreds of Easter eggs. "Taliesin has always valued a kind of total immersion over objectivity," wrote former apprentice Vernon D. Swaback. To hold things together, there was Wright's genius and the organizational skills of his third wife, Olgivanna. Indeed, it was she who kept the fellowship and Wright's architectural firm going after he died.

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