Transformations Ahead at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Properties
Industry-leading preservation efforts turn an eye toward the future at Taliesin West.
By Robert Danielson
Sonoran Scout blogger Robert Danielson was fortunate to chat with Fred Prozzillo, vice president of preservation for Taliesin West about the upcoming historic preservation projects planned for the coming year.
Taliesin West and its sister property in Wisconsin were designated in 2019 as UNESCO World Heritage sites. What is involved with this designation, and what impact do you expect it will have on the two properties?
It was a long process which began back in the 1980s. To be inscribed as a World Heritage Site you must prove that the property, or in our case, properties, present outstanding universal value for mankind. Wright’s work was rooted in creating a new architecture for America. This new architecture proved to be very popular throughout the world as it worked to create a more beautiful life for its inhabitants. As a newly inscribed World Heritage Site we’ve already seen an increase in interest and visitation and believe this will better enable us to share Wright’s legacy locally, nationally, and internationally and develop support for our efforts.
Many of us are very familiar with Taliesin West, but maybe not so much with Taliesin in Wisconsin. Can you compare these two properties? When were they built, how are they similar and how are they different?
Taliesin West is very different from Wright’s home in rural Wisconsin, Taliesin. Wright’s architecture was intended to be site specific. He felt structures should blend seamlessly with their environment and the land upon which they were built. In 1911, when Wright built Taliesin, he used its construction to represent his ideas. He constructed his home amongst the trees on the
brow of a hill (Taliesin is a Welsh word, meaning “Shining Brow”), just below the top, as building on top would dominate and destroy the hill. He used local stone and timber to create a structure that felt at home in rural Wisconsin. In 1938, when Wright began construction of his winter camp in the Sonoran Desert, the forms were radically different from Taliesin. Here, the desert is angular with its rocky mountains and desert plants. So, as a result, Taliesin West is angular, rough, and built of materials that represent the unique qualities of the desert.
You mention that Taliesin West was meant to be an ever-changing laboratory. What do you mean by that, and how will that affect any future restorations?
Wright was one of the first Arizona snowbirds, traveling between Taliesin and Taliesin West seasonally. Each year when he returned to Arizona, he saw his winter camp with a new and clear eye and would make adjustments to the building with his architect apprentices. Wright always referred to Taliesin West as his winter camp, and the impermanent quality of a camp made it easy for him to make changes. Here he experimented with materials, forms, and concepts. As we work to preserve Taliesin West for future generations, we have the challenge of making permanent something that was in a constant state of development in Wright’s time. Today we continue Wright’s legacy of innovation, education, and experimentation through our preservation work, using new and innovative materials and using our projects as teaching tools all while maintaining the historic integrity of the building.
Scheduled 2020 projects include extensive improvements to Taliesin West’s accessibility and water and electrical infrastructure, as well as renovation of the site’s fabric roofs and Hillside Theater. Let’s talk about these one at a time. But first, is there an over-arching strategy as you approach these renovations?
The most important work we can do in the preservation department is preserve the two Taliesins so they are available to tour and study for years to come. Taliesin West was home to Wright and his architectural training program where young men and women apprenticed to learn the profession of architecture. We want to preserve not only the buildings but also the legacy of education. Wright used the buildings to teach his apprentices. We want to continue that tradition for tourists visiting the Valley, students visiting on field trips, and the building industry studying our preservation projects and processes.
Accessibility. I’ve toured Taliesin West and noted first-hand some narrow doorways, and sometimes difficult flooring and steps. What is planned to improve accessibility, and how do you do that without compromising the home’s original integrity?
One of the character-defining elements of Taliesin West is how it is terraced into the landscape on three levels, making it feel as if it has grown out of the hillside and has been there for all time. The terraces make traversing the site difficult for some guest with mobility challenges. Our goal is to make as much of Taliesin West accessible to as many guests as possible. To achieve this, we received a grant from the National Endowment for Humanities to add handrails and accessible ramps to the property. We have just completed installing a new surface of stabilized decomposed granite, making it easier for people using wheelchairs and walkers to access the property, while maintaining the historic appearance of the property. We also partnered with Leica Geosystems to develop a virtual reality model that allows visitors with mobility challenges to view the far reaches of the site through a tablet. Our work included careful consideration to ensure we did not alter the building and compromise its integrity or authenticity.
What is planned in terms of water and electrical infrastructure?
Much of Taliesin West was constructed by Wright’s apprentices between 1938 and 1959. Today, 60 years later, much of our infrastructure is antiquated or at the end of its serviceable life and needs to be replaced. Replacing infrastructure is costly and can be very damaging to a building. With our goal to preserve and protect our structures we need to explore means by which we can replace systems in ways that are minimally invasive. So, we are teaming up with leaders in the industry of horizontal directional boring to bore underground to replace water and sewer lines. This will leave our historic walkways and beautiful gardens untouched while providing much needed improvements. We hope to share this work with the community to show that if it is safe and effective at Taliesin West, a World Heritage Site and National Historic Landmark, it is a viable solution for any building project.
The theater at Taliesin West is amazing, and my favorite part of the tour. What’s the future for the theater, both in terms of restorations and future programming?
In addition to preserving the buildings we want to preserve the life within the buildings of Taliesin West. There is nothing like seeing a performance in one of the theaters at Taliesin. The spaces are unique and magical. When viewed as Wright intended, you are left with a transformative experience. We are currently working to upgrade the theatrical lighting and sound system, while adding two accessible restrooms, all in an effort to accommodate a diversity of programs and guests. We recently had Arizona Opera out for a performance, Southwest Shakespeare has a number of plays scheduled in the Pavilion this year, and we regularly host music performances that are open to the public. We will continue to grow our performance programming, allowing our visitors to experience these incredible spaces as Frank Lloyd Wright intended for them to be used.
If I am not mistaken, Mr. Prozzillo, you were once an architectural apprentice at Taliesin West, or the School of Architecture at Taliesin. Are you and your team employing the assistance of students at Taliesin in executing these projects?
We love involving students in the work at Taliesin and Taliesin West and continue to use the sites as teaching tools, including hosting students to study and create architecture in the same space where Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned some of the world’s greatest designs. Currently we are also working with students from the University of Pennsylvania on a variety of preservation projects documenting our buildings and researching how materials have performed in the desert. We are also working with students from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and the University of Texas, San Antonio producing drawings of Taliesin and Taliesin West through the Historic American Buildings Survey program.
Frank Lloyd Wright was an architect ahead of his time, and his innovations have steered the industry throughout the decades. Are there advances to be made during these historic preservation projects that will have future impact on the industry as we move forward?
Everything Wright did at Taliesin West was about innovation and intended as a teaching moment. He was innovating, experimenting, and sharing his findings with his apprentices. We intend to continue this tradition as we move forward with our preservation efforts. All historic sites have complex problems to solve. While our preservation challenges may be unique, the problem-solving process is common. As a complex historic site, we want to document and share our decision-making process with other sites, to help them understand how we make high quality decisions. By sharing how we work through complex problems and come to solutions, we hope to move the industry forward.
Finally, is there anything I didn’t ask that you would like to share about these projects and the future of Taliesin West?
The preservation of Taliesin and Taliesin West is about more than just maintaining historic buildings. We do this work so we can continue to inspire society through an experience of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ideas and architecture. Through this experience, people incorporate more beauty into their lives, consider how we treat and engage more deeply with our environment, and find more ways for personal connections with loved ones and the greater community. We believe this makes for a happier, healthier, and more productive way of living, improving lives and changing the world for the better.
For more information about the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation or to join as a member, make a donation or plan your tour of Taliesin West, visit www.FrankLloydWright.org.
Robert Danielson is a 35-year career journalist, marketing and public relations expert. He joins us here at Phoenix Home and Garden Magazine as he explores the Valley as a newcomer to our region. Please welcome him by e-mailing him at RobertDigsIntoArizona@gmail.com