Do the Wright Thing

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An aerial shot of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West circa 1950.
Courtesy Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, MoMA, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University

“The design of Taliesin West is ad hoc, yet fully master planned in every way,” said T. Gunny Harboe, principal at Chicago-based Harboe Architects, underscoring the complexity of preserving a structure as protean and contextual as Taliesin West, where building began in 1937 and never stopped. “It is a construction of 80,000 square feet under one roof, and yet is totally integrated with the landscape that surrounds it. The landscape comes into the building, goes out of the building, and is even within the buildings.”

Two years ago, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation commissioned Harboe Architects to create a master plan for the preservation of Wright’s school and home in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The recently completed, 740-page plan outlines strategies to preserve Taliesin West, a structure that Wright and his disciples modified many times over the years without presenting a false sense of history. The plan presents an approach to conserving deteriorating materials, preserving existing spaces, restoring viewscapes lost to new additions and landscaping, and supporting Taliesin West as a tourist site, education center, and foundation headquarters.

“One of the real challenges,” Harboe said, “was that this place was a seasonal camp. When Wright would arrive each fall, he would start messing with things.” Wright would have one of his “go-to boys” redo a window, or whole rooms. The changes were mostly unphotographed and undocumented.

The drafting room circa 1940.
 

The plan has four primary objectives: identify what needs to be restored or preserved, and why; determine intensity of preservation for different components of the site (and preservation Plan B’s, if adequate resources are unavailable); estimate the cost; and determine what needs care immediately. Bridgeton, New Jersey–based engineers Watson & Henry Associates and the Philadelphia office of historic preservation firm Building Conservation Associates collaborated with Harboe on the plan.

To see how Taliesin West evolved, the team consulted over 6,000 photographs and construction documents at Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library. They wanted to get a sense of the materials and textures that finished art photos don’t depict.

Through site surveys, the team pieced together what had been constructed (or reconstructed) and when. The building of Taliesin West can be separated into four periods: the 1937 groundbreaking and the construction of the core campus (through 1945), a major postwar expansion to accommodate more students (1946 to 1959, the year Wright died), after Wright’s death (1960 to 1985), and when the foundation’s offices were added (1986–2014). Harboe consulted visitor services (the site attracts 100,000 architecture enthusiasts per year), the school on site, and “legacy groups,” students who were at Taliesin West with Wright, to gain insight into how the space was shaped over time.

Harboe’s team used results from the site survey and the interviews to divide the property into four zones: the first designates areas of crucial significance, mostly built during Wright’s lifetime, while zone four comprises areas of “minor significance.”

The zone one drafting studio is one of the first buildings the preservation team will work on. The roof of the drafting studio, for example, was originally made of canvas. In the mid 1960s, the canvas was replaced by fiberglass. In the mid-1990s, the fiberglass roof was replaced by acrylic. Work will repair the leaky roof leaks, stabilize wood beams, and repair desert masonry. They will also remove excess vegetation and masonry to restore views of the surrounding mountains.

Originally, the buildings were more open to the landscape. Rooms were designed for passive cooling, while shades controlled ventilation and sun shading. In the 1950s, glass enclosures created a fixed envelope that allowed for indoor climate control in the 1960s. However, Harboe noted that preservation may entail the removal of some contemporary comforts—like air conditioning—to restore the environmentally responsive original design.

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