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Wright's Acolytes

May 9, 2011

Spent yesterday pottering about at Taliesin West, the winter residence and school of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, located in Scottsdale, AZ.

What's remarkable about the place, is how much it owes cheap student labor for its beauty and largely even for its mere existence!

According to my tour guide, the first question that the famous architect would ask of people who came to interview for a spot in the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture was apparently: "Can you pay $650?" -- the fee for being an apprentice at Taliesin. A few scholarships were given out, but basically the program catered to the independently wealthy, as $650 in the late 1930s and 1940s was a considerable sum.

Wright not only used his apprentices to help develop architectural plans, but he also had them undertake quite a lot of the  construction work on the property itself. Wright had them knock down and erect walls and build doors, among other things. This must have been a great education for the students. It also allowed Wright to build whatever his whims dictated (and his whims changed frequently) without having to pay much of a price.

The school at Taliesin still exists. Each year, the first thing that each scholar builds is a shelter for him or herself on the property. The Wright Foundation owns many acres of desert land surrounding the main buildings at Taliesin West and this provides an amazing canvas for cutting-edge building designs. I was completely entranced by the photographs I saw of various student dwellings couched in the sand among the cacti. (The desert shelter tour at Taliesin West is only available from November though April without making a special appointment.)

Ultimately, it is the presence of the school that makes Taliesin West relevant today. It contributes an innovative quality to what is otherwise really just a museum.

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