The eve of the new year is a good time to think about time and immortality. What would immortality look like? What would you learn? We live in the present, of course, and live with what we have. But without a past we have very little.
Frank Lloyd Wright came into this world two years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and only left it after we entered the Space Age. That’s a pretty fair piece of immortality.
He was of course America’s architect, in no small part because he disdained tradition and built in the present, too much so for many of his countrymen. But building was life, and he built with what he had. And that was a lot.
A number of Wright buildings remain, of many shapes and sizes. One he created for himself, for living in and working in, you will find on the road west, in Arizona.
Wright named it Taliesin, and he built it in the desert outside Phoenix when Phoenix was a handful of streets hanging on between Ft. McDowell and the Gila River. And he kept on building it, changing, rethinking — in love with it until he died.
Drive past an unprepossessing sign on a dirt road with the predictable malls and tract homes of Scottsdale in your rearview mirror, and you come upon an almost alien complex, a cluster of horizontal masses and vertical rhythms growing from the desert floor. Made of concrete, local stone, wood, and a touch of glass, the structures are complemented with plantings and petroglyphs taken from the desert. You may have heard the old phrase ‘organic architecture’, but be warned. It can be misleading. These buildings don’t actually look of the desert. They simply belong here. Like the thematic development of compelling music, they are at once surprising and inevitable.
The most prominent mass — the one in all the postcards — contains the huge drafting room. Stone piers and stone walls. A line of sloping beams painted his signature Cherokee red. An expansive interior awash in muted, natural light. The heart of the architect’s home, Taliesin West.
But the heart is not the whole.
You have to see it all, the bright and lively areas (hard to call them ‘rooms’) where Wright and his family and his apprentices gathered for food and conversation and music (and students and fellows still do), the theaters (yes, plural), and the smaller, almost innocuous bedrooms. You have to see and feel the setting he made for his life to understand how he thought of life and what he expected of it, this man who cut his teeth when the country still traveled by horse, and left a mark on it that is young and welcoming today.
To me, architecture is about light and space, how they are shaped and how they work and affect the people who live within. The surfaces are ornament, emphasis, contrast, never the building itself.
But Wright shows us the often unremarked dimension of art — time. The past, the present, and the future.
Happy New Year.