Frank Lloyd Wright's Humble Desert Palace
Page 2

Story and photos by Michael Shapiro

FLW philosophy

Fellow architects derided Wright's school as a Tom Sawyer-like scheme for extracting work from students and having them pay for the privilege. But Wright, inspired by Olgivanna, who had studied with the mystical teacher Gurdjieff, felt students learned by doing, and that they could absorb knowledge by being in the presence of a master.

Roy heartily agreed saying that just watching the fastidiously dressed Wright work was a lesson in itself. He said Wright could fully conceive a complex building before putting it to paper. And while Roy suggested that Wright enjoyed having admiring students around, he didn't run the program for the money.

"I paid for that first year and Frank Lloyd Wright gave me seven years of scholarship. He was very generous," Roy told me. But that didn't mean Wright was forgiving or soft. He was "looking for people who were serious. If you didn't pull your weight, he'd tell you to pack up right away."

And though his students camped in the desert, Wright expected them to dress well for formal events such as recitals on the property. Wright's acceptance letter to the fellowship told new students to bring "a sleeping bag and a tuxedo."

A Structure of Stone and Canvas
To build the walls of much of Taliesin West, Wright employed "desert rubble masonry" composed of rocks found on the property, filled in with mortar made of local sand.

"That's about as organic as you can get," tour guide Char Burrows said later that day as we explored the property. "Frank Lloyd Wright was a green builder long before the term was ever applied to architecture." The stones were called one-man or two-man rocks, she said, depending on how many people it took to lift them. The boulders used in the base of the walls were three-man rocks.

The desert rubble glowed golden in the afternoon sun as Burrows led a group of about 20 into Wright's office and told us he completed a third of his 1100-plus commissions in the last decade of his life. He often said his religion was Nature, "with a capital N," she said, and in Taliesin West's early years Wright prohibited the use of glass windows, preferring canvas to soften the stark desert light.

house plants

Later, in a 2010 issue of the Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly, I read an essay by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, who studied under Wright. Taliesin's fortress-like walls stood in sharp contrast to the airy, billowing textile ceilings, he said. When Wright began building his desert home, he had no heat, no plumbing and not much money. Pfeiffer writes that Taliesin's living spaces reflect Wright's limited budget, but "even when creating humble, camp-like spaces, Wright's architectural genius is always evident."

As our tour continued into a breezeway between buildings, two-foot triangles at the base of the roof cast diamond shadows on the walls and floor. "He called these 'eye music,'" Burrows said, and believed the canvas tents and window coverings looked like sails on a ship bobbing on a desert ocean. The view looks west toward Camelback Mountain—Wright was furious, Burrows said, when power poles were installed and marred his desert vista.


In the residential wing, which opened to the public in 2004, is Wright's bedroom. It's small, almost cramped, with Scandinavian furniture that looks as if it could have come from a mid-century Ikea. I found it surprising that this renowned architect had such a low-ceilinged bedroom, but Wright believed in "compression release" making some spaces small and others expansive to give the sensation of opening up into the natural world.

The Kiva Room, a place for ceremonies, has the feel of a sacred Native American chamber. With floor lights and recessed lighting, which Burrows said Wright invented, the Kiva Room stayed cool during the sweltering desert summers. In the music pavilion is a display of Froebel blocks, a childhood toy that inspired Wright's love of geometry.

The sloping Cabaret Room, where films were shown and recitals held, is another display of Wright's wizardly. It stays cool because it's partly underground. Dinner was served on tables that folded down when the performance started and the acoustics were nearly perfect. The Wrights sat in back so they could overhear what guests up front were saying. "If they weren't nice," Burrows said, "they didn't get invited back."

There was Wright's confidence with a dash of attitude. Yet Wright was humble enough to know he didn't have all the answers, that his ideas shouldn't be the last word. During Wright's 22 years at Taliesin West, the modifications never stopped. Returning each winter, Pfeiffer said, Wright would make changes and say, "I'm seeing it with a fresh eye."

Late in his life, Pfeiffer recalled, Wright said to his students "Boys, what I've done here is a charcoal sketch. It's up to you to finish it when I'm gone."


Taliesin West celebrates its 75th anniversary as Arizona marks its centennial in 2012. Frank Lloyd Wright's desert home is marking this milestone with programming ranging from symposiums and concerts to special events and enhanced tours. For updated information about programs and tours, held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, see

The Arizona Biltmore, a Waldorf Astoria hotel, is one of Arizona's first resorts and retains the mark of Frank Lloyd Wright. The already famous architect traveled from the Midwest to Arizona in 1928 to consult, for a handsome fee of course, with his one-time apprentice draftsman, Albert Chase McArthur, on the design of the Biltmore.

Michael Shapiro is author of A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration and wrote the text for the pictorial book Guatemala: A Journey Through the Land of the Maya. He has won the Travel Classics contest for best story about Arizona for the past three years. Contact him via

Return to Page 1

Related articles:

Born in the USA: an Apple, a Taco, and a Doctor's Soda Syrup by Chris Epting
Road Trips Through Life by Chris Epting
Finding Old Ireland Alive in Place, Words, and Song by Michael Shapiro
My Life and Times With the CN Tower by Amy Rosen

Other United States travel stories from the archives

Bookmark and Share
Read this article online at:

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2012. All rights reserved.

Also in this issue:

Books from the Author:

Guatemala book

Order Guatemala: a Journey Through the Land of the Maya through your local bookstore or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

A Sense of Place

Buy A Sense of Place at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Sign Up