We recently got back from a holiday in Arizona, and I took the opportunity to wander through some of my favourite landmarks down there, taking dozens of photographs and thinking about some of the fascinating influences this area has had on North American design.
The desert landscape around the town of Sedona is what a lot of us picture when we think of Arizona, with its turquoise skies, rich red and ochre sands, craggy scrub and bold, rugged mountains and mesas. Rising straight above the desert floor beyond Phoenix and Scottsdale is Camelback Mountain, which looks like a camel lying down; many of the mesas are named for what their shapes suggest, such as Teapot. A wonderful wild landscape of stark, bold contrasts.
In the heart of the town of Sedona is an unusual landmark: Tlaquepaque, a perfectly preserved historic Mexican village. But the most interesting thing about the place is that there isn’t a single authentic thing about it: it was imagined, designed and built, in its entirety, in 1971 by one Abe Miller, as an idealized recreation of what a village like this might have been like a century ago. Touristy and full of pricey boutiques and restaurants, sure, but still worth a visit for all that.
Much more intellectually stimulating is Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and architectural school, Taliesin West, on the outskirts of Phoenix. There’s been a lot written and said about Taliesin West, but what strikes me walking around the compound is the spirit of Wright that still permeates the buildings. It’s a philosophy as much as a location, the very personal vision of a singular genius.
Taliesin West was intended as a communal place of learning and sharing; he held weekly salons in the living room, where everyone was expected to dress in formal attire. (This is quite amusing as the desert/landscape and life in Phoenix at the time was relaxed and western, and of course it gets blistering hot.)
One of the things that struck me was the living quarters, which compared to today’s standard are relatively small and simple. His bedroom featured two single beds, both his, with a panel between the two. He was a very productive man and slept little; supposedly, the bed on the right side of the panel was for napping, and if he was in this bed he was “allowed” to be disturbed, whereas the bed on the left side of the panel was for sleep, and a signal to leave him in peace.
His unique vision also encompassed working with the landscape in a sympathetic way. The low profiles of the buildings seem to hunker down into the landscape; angular rooflines mimic the jagged contours of the surrounding rocks. The materials themselves, in many instances, come straight from the surrounding desert; much of the compound was built by the students who lived here in the school’s early years. The interiors are practical and considered as well; light penetrates into the inner parts of the house in a deliberate, controlled way, while thick stone walls keep the space remarkably cool—air conditioning was still in the future.
Interestingly, perhaps consistent with the reverses he had through his career, many elements were done very inexpensively, and the lack of lasting quality shows. Plywood was one of FLW’s favourite building materials, whether aesthetically or because of its low cost. Lucky it is the desert—any humidity and the whole structure would have disintegrated by now.