Taliesin and Frank Lloyd Wright

Wednesday, October 15, 2008 -- near Dodgeville, WI

This past Monday Dar and I visited Taliesin, the Southwestern Wisconsin summer home of Frank Lloyd Wright and his school of architecture. Despite his having died almost 50 years ago, the grounds, buildings, and school are still administered by The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the work of the famous architect and advancing the principles of organic architecture. I was somewhat surprised to find that there's still an active community of students and mentors, including a number who live in the original Taliesin complex. There are a series of other buildings on the almost 600 acre grounds including homes, farm buildings, and the school itself. The setting, amidst the hills and rolling terrain along the Wisconsin River is idyllic. Even though both Dar and I were born and raised in Wisconsin neither of us had been here before.

During the last 35 years of his life, from the early 1930's until his death in 1959, Wright's time was spent between here and Taliesin West in Scottsdale Arizona. In fact, the entire school -- instructors, students (known as apprentices), and support staff -- would migrate every year with the seasons, and they still do to this day.

But despite the best intentions of the Foundation there's not enough money to keep these historic structures in good repair. We saw many signs of deterioration during the tours. Wright was an innovator and liked to try new things while pushing the limits and capabilities of materials and construction methods. That personal style resulted in buildings that just don't hold up to the elements and the ravages of time... flat roofs are leaking (don't they always?), wood is rotting, foundations are shifting, seals are deteriorating. Wright structures are known for their high maintenance demand. The guided tours aren't cheap at $47 to $80 per person but the proceeds all go toward upkeep and maintenance. If there wasn't enough money during the past few affluent years, what'll happen when the economy slows down for a while?

That aside, there's a lot to like about his designs... the low horizontal lines, the melding of outside and inside spaces, the multi-purpose great room concept, the use of native materials, and designing structures to fit in with their surroundings, among others. But one element of his design philosophy gave me a headache -- low ceilings which are especially common in entryway areas. It wasn't unusual for me, at 6' 1", to have to duck or smack my head as I entered a building. I think the design idea was that the contrast between the low entryway and the much higher ceilings inside added to the dramatic nature of the structure -- a little like going through a small cave entrance to get to the big cavern inside. Maybe so, but com'on Frank, couldn't you just raise the entryway ceiling a few inches and still maintain this feel?

Someday, when we decide we need a more permanent structure someplace, we will probably use some of the basic elements of organic architecture in what we do. But if we do I can assure you there'll be no space where I'll have a chance of smacking my head on the ceiling.

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On a side note, daylight really slips away fast this time of the year. Our exploration time is shorter and there are fewer hours of solar power to charge batteries. And my body-clock, driven by daylight, is adjusting. I'm finding myself sleeping later in the morning, at least until Daylight Savings Time ends on November 2. It's all part of that annual cycle. We've been through it many times before. On balance, though, I prefer the light of summer.

T
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