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The Drafting Studio at Taliesin West Continues to Inspire

Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy lives on in this iconic space.

By Fred Prozzillo

“I have never had any greater pleasure than to take a handful of colored pencils in one hand here, T-square and triangle lying on a sheet of white paper, and try to feel the design of the thing I want to do. It’s a great moment.”

Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright spoke of the process of creation with reverence, as if it were a spiritual act because, for him, it was. As such, when you enter the drafting studio at Taliesin West, Wright’s winter home and studio in Scottsdale, you are entering a sacred space.

Frank Lloyd Wright works in his drafting studio at Taliesin West in 1950. Standing next to him is his apprentice Ling Po, who collaborated with the renowned architect on renderings of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum interiors.

Of Form and Function

Situated in the center of Taliesin West’s historical core—which includes Wright’s office, his family’s living quarters, the kitchen and Fellowship dining room, the Garden Room and the Kiva theater—the studio was one of the first buildings constructed on the property beginning in 1938. Like the rest of the surrounding structures, it was built using materials found on site, allowing the architecture to connect with the environment and feel as if it belongs there.

The exterior of the studio is a celebration of the desert; a stone, concrete and glass sculpture that rises out of the Arizona landscape. A pitched roof angles upward, drawing the eye toward the McDowell Mountains in the distance. The roof, a series of built-up beams with translucent panels stepped between them, was once enclosed with sheets of canvas. The fabric has since been replaced with acrylic, but an upcoming preservation project will bring it back to its original aesthetic.

Upon entering, you are immediately immersed in the quality of the space: the openness of the work area, even when crowded; the flood of natural light, soft and filtered, perfect for drawing; the tentlike structure in the desert winter, moving the air through to cool the inhabitant. There is a quietness that allows you to center your attention on the reason you are there: to create.

“The openness of the room in which Mr. Wright moved from one desk to another was somehow enriching to everyone,” recalls Valley architect and Wright apprentice Vernon D. Swaback. It fostered a sense of togetherness that was like “the difference between a chorus all focused on the same performance as opposed to a group of individuals who work against the greater good.”

Operable canvas panels, later replaced with acrylic, on the north side of the studio direct sunlight and breezes through the open roof. The Pergola, a wood-framed portico, runs the length of the studio.

Rows of drafting tables look out on a panoramic view of the Sonoran Desert. Wright spelled the word “Nature” with a capital N—“the way you spell God with a capital G,” he explained—encouraging his apprentices to pursue, in his own words, a “deep and full understanding and appreciation of the beauty around you.” In this sanctuary, the architect immersed students in the breathtaking scenery, almost forcing the deep consideration of nature in the resulting designs.

An Enduring Legacy

Even though he passed away in 1959, Wright continues to look over the studio, both literally and figuratively. His portrait hangs at its west end, keeping watch over the drafting tables. But it is his legacy that looms even larger. It was here that some of the world’s most iconic buildings were conceived, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The Guggenheim, Taliesin West and six other Wright designs across the country were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list last year, a historic recognition of the ongoing influence of this American architect and his impact on the world as a whole.

It was also in this room that future generations of architects trained in Wright’s principles of organic architecture. Notable talents such as John Lautner, who helped create California modernism, and Paolo Soleri, whose Arcosanti is an experiment of the intersection of architecture and ecology, studied under Wright. Some of the more prominent local architects of today also learned their craft in the Taliesin Studio, including Swaback, his associate Jon Bernhard and Wendell Burnette, all of whom, along with Soleri, have been honored with Phoenix Home & Garden’s Masters of the Southwest Award.

Vernon D. Swaback (seated) was only 17 years old when he joined the Taliesin Fellowship. In this 1970s-era image, he confers with fellow architect Kamal Amin, who traveled from his homeland of Egypt in 1951 to study with Wright. In the background is architect Michael Sutton.

“The drafting studio is a cathedral of commitment to exploring and creating what we design and add to the earth.”

—Vernon D. Swaback, architect

Swaback joined the Taliesin Fellowship, a community of students and their families who lived, worked and studied at both Taliesin West and Taliesin, Wright’s summer home in Spring Green, Wisconsin, in 1957 at age 17, earning himself the title of Wright’s youngest apprentice. He refers to the drafting studio as “a cathedral of commitment to exploring and creating what we design and add to the earth,” and says it is unlike any other working environment in the world. “It would be difficult to imagine anyone singing the spiritual high praise of an office they worked in,” says Swaback. “But to experience one that was created by Frank Lloyd Wright—it was an unforgettable space that existed there and nowhere else.”

Following Wright’s death, Taliesin Fellows, such as Swaback and Charles Montooth, continued to use the studio to sustain Wright’s legacy and advance their own ideas by forming Taliesin Associated Architects, leaving their imprint across the Valley of the Sun with buildings such as the ASU Music Building, designed by Wright’s first apprentice, Wes Peters, and multiple additions to the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. While the firm disbanded in 2003, and many protégés have retired or passed on, the spirit of fellowship continues in Arizona. The studio has served as an educational incubator where future architects have experienced and handed down the community and values of those who trained there before them.

Apprentices take advantage of the desert’s cool winter weather by working outside near the swimming pool in 1940.

Preserving Wright’s Vision

Today, the studio and all of Taliesin West, as well as Taliesin, is overseen by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which was established by Wright in the 1940s. According to President and CEO Stuart Graff, the Foundation is committed to preserving both properties as a way to experience Wright’s ideas as well as his architecture. “These spaces are not relics simply to be seen,” says Graff. “The spirit of Taliesin lives and breathes here. Just as we offer live music and theater in the music pavilion so the world has the opportunity to experience those spaces as they were intended, we want the drafting studio to remain an active work space that continues to inspire some of the most imaginative and lasting designs in the world.”

A portrait of Wright hangs in the drafting studio, keeping watch over the space and its students.

Graff notes that the Foundation is currently working on new, expanded instructional programs and partnerships to broaden the impact of the educational legacy at the site. “The principles of Wright’s organic architecture that are embodied in the drafting studio at Taliesin West offer a unique source of inspiration, in which community, design and nature are unified and celebrated.”

The man who was called the world’s greatest architect wrote about Taliesin West in his autobiography, noting, “That desert camp belonged to the desert as though it had stood there for centuries.” The work that has come out of the drafting studio will leave its mark on Arizona and the world for many more centuries to come.

Fred Prozzillo earned his Master of Architecture degree from the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, training in the drafting studio at Taliesin West. Today, he is the vice president of preservation for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and is responsible for the care and maintenance of the very properties, Taliesin and Taliesin West, where he honed his craft.


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