Thursday, January 6, 2011

Inside Outside

Our New Years Day was highlighted by a visit to Taliesin West, home of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, where we spent two hours touring student designed housing on the founder's spacious estate. A great deal of Wright's legacy is the idea of integrating architecture with the natural outdoor landscape and vice versa. To help young architects develop some personal experience with the unique Sonoran desert environment, they are housed in "shelters" that have been designed and built by former students.

Each structure had its own artistic signature, underscored by airy theoretical concepts of contemporary architecture being taught at the school. One integrated a reflection pool. Another simulated a ship. Several used shade cloth stretched in abstract ways. Many had fire pits or fireplaces to add a little warmth on chilly winter nights. A patch of artificial lawn was part of the patio in one student's cynical commentary on landscaping choices of the "commoners" in the somewhat architecturally parched residential areas around Phoenix. All of them demonstrated heroic efforts to transcend the standard box and peak roof forms of American architecture in general or humdrum stucco and tile of southwest architecture in particular.

But what struck me most was the quixotic inattention to basic elements of the environment that ended up making many of the structures unlivable. Like wind. Or rain. And sun. Our guides let us in on which structures were avoided because of winds that howled through the bed chamber every night, needed a tarp to shield from the rain, became too blazing hot on a sunny day, or happened to be built in the favorite pathway of resident wildlife. Only a few met the criteria of being reliable shelter from the weather. I'm no architect, but I guess I thought that if I were being trained to be one who is especially sensitive to the environment that I build in, these would be some of my primary concerns as a designer. Call me practical.

However, they were all very cool spaces, in the stylistic sense, to hang out in. Some of the features I liked the best were the spiral arrangement of stones for a fire circle; a window that featured an especially handsome saguaro for a view; a dash of the Great Master himself represented by a hanging screen designed by Wright; and that lawn with its symbolic watering can. But next time I want to spend the night in the desert, I'll happily rely on my sturdy dome-shaped tent to help keep me warm, dry and protected from the wind.

For more information on Taliesin West and tours they offer there, you can find everything you need on their website:

All of the photos in this entry were taken by my daughter Brooke Warren, who has her own fun blog at: