Wednesday, February 4, 2009

In a Sandbox with Pointy Plants

Have you ever seen old photographs? The ones that have old relatives in them. Maybe it's just a snapshot of two aunts standing in front of a house, one have her hair tied back in a bandanna and the other has those Cadillac fin thick white frame sunglasses. The image usually looks washed out and the colors faded, not because of the fading on the photo but instead it's related to the quality of the camera the photo was shot on a few decades earlier. I'm now beginning to wonder if it was just the intensity of the sun.

In Arizona the sun seems to shell out a different light. I don't know if it has a meteorological reasoning, maybe the lack of humidity in the atmosphere to break up UVs. Is it something that could be added to the list for global warming? Maybe it's just the fact that I'm in a different environment, but it definitely seems harsher and more intense here. Granted this could also be because everything is brown in the desert.
I awoke on Shawni's couch to these harsh rays pounding on my eyelids. The early morning haze threw me off, I couldn't figure out why the light was coming from my feet. It was because Jason was up early mapping out routes for his bike trip from Phoenix and he had left the porch door open. Without the chance to fall asleep again, I decided to join him and poke around the map book. Trying to find out location in Scottsdale so that he could plan his Phoenician Escape, my finger ran across a small attraction marker east of Scottsdale about 8 miles into the desert.

"Taliesin West."
Instantly, we both knew our plan for the day.

But first we needed food; Shawni recommended a regional joint called U.S. Egg. It was similar to an IHOP but with much better food. After decoding the menu for about 10 minutes, we all ended up ordering the same thing, a hash brown scrambler skillet with protein pancakes. And no, that's not protein milk mix in the pancakes; they mixed in blueberries, granola, chopped almonds, and a few other things into the pancake batter. It was more like a Nature Valley granola bar in pancake form.

After breakfast...oh who am I kidding, after lunch we said good bye to Shawni and then hit the road. We both noticed this Jesse James culture in the Arizona cities. I don't mean bank robber types, I mean hot rods, choppers, classic muscle cars. The streets were filled with bikers who looked like they belonged on a Discovery Channel Special. The flat level streets with the tight city blocks made it a good place to cruise through town and show off your work.
Here's one such automobile for your viewing pleasure, spotted in the parking lot when we left U.S. Egg:
But on to the prize of the day. America's most accomplished, well known, and arguable the world's best architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was invited to design and build a hotel in Phoenix some years ago. Upon visiting the desert from his studio/home in Spring Green, Wisconsin, he grew fond of the climate and natural beauty that Arizona offered him. I imagine he saw something like this:

He bought a piece of property that was rejected by farmers because there well drilling efforts rendered no water. After studying the hill side Mr. Wright only suggested digging deeper. He purchased the land and dug from the farmer's 350 feet to 500feet down hit water that still flows to this day. It has been traced back to the melt water from the Colorado Rocky Mountains that melted three years before it ends up here.

Jason and I were thrilled to be here, but you don't get to go much further than this next photo without paying for a guided tour.

Well heck how much is it, were only here once!.... it was nearly 40 bucks! When we each heard that enormously high figure we both cringed. Here is an architectural icon of the American great, and we were contemplating passing up the chance to see it because of out limited budgets.

But remember, Jason was with me. God bless him, Jason is the type of character that you either love or hate as soon as you meet him. He's possibly the most genuine person I've ever met. He explained our grief in being architecture students and having to pass on this Architecture Mecca. We just wondered the gift store trying to soak up as much Taliesin as we could from the view out the window.

The lady behind the counter apparently spoke with someone in private and then sought us out before we were about to leave and offered us a specialty discounted rate. Jason, and the compassion this woman had for him, was able to get a nearly 75% discount. I think they wanted us to see this place more than we wanted to see it! We couldn't pass that up, and then spent the next two hours with a man who has been claimed as one of the better tour guides at Taliesin West.

So we began, I'm just going to post several pictures with small annotations or notes. Keep in mind that some of these aren't even good pictures. They are what I've dubbed "photographic sketching," photographing details or moments for architectural study later. I'm posting them here because I bet the architectural/design/engineering circle of friends will enjoy them.

Scattered about the land were several markings of an ancient civilization. Phoenix is a modern city that still uses an ancient canal to deliver water. It was built by the same people who left these markings, the Hohokam, a pre-America Indian people dated around the same time as the Incas and Aztecs. "Hohokam" is actually a word designated the tribes around the Southwest. It's an Indian word that appropriately identifies what happened to them, it means "used up."

Several of the markings were able to be translated. Not positive but I think it had to do with a carry over language system used by modern tribes. The second petraglyph on the rock above was understood to mean 'friendship.' Wright was taken with the graphic appeal of the interlocking spirals and decided to adapt this as his signature.

Wright's philosophy was to create a building of the earth, not on the earth. He wanted to pretty much use what was on his property or near by services to erect his structures and live in a balance with the natural setting. The stones were placed in wood forms which were then filled with concrete made mostly of the sand and dirt under his feet. The red wood rafters came from a local sawmill and then had canvas stretched over them to allow light to permeate into the interior.
This is inside the main presentation space. Wright would meet his clients and work here. Note the interior surface is the same as the exterior. The large thermal mass of the concrete would prevent the heat from penetrating too quickly, but at night when the temperature in the desert drops, the heat collected throughout the day would be released keeping a relatively comfy interior temperature. Thank you Lechner!
Wright borrowed the angle of the mountain in the background. He used this angle as the slope of roof structure for all of his redwood and canvas roofs.
There are a few pools around the property. Most are 18-24 inches deep, so not as much a "pool" as much as a "water feature," the term we use in the business! All of them are still well-fed and have been since the project was built. The three main pools represent the trinity of geometries, Triangle, Circle and Quadrangle, and serve a purpose of irrigation for the non-local plants and humidifying the dry air. But the main reason these are strategically located around the premises is to combat Wright's inevitable enemy: He as fire prone. With water reservoirs located intermittently throughout the complex, should a fire spark up, someone could run and grab a bucket quickly!
Wright was influenced heavily by Asian culture, and here is one of several pieces he put into the walls as a reminded that the architecture is a setting for the play of life.
The private garden, with a neato portal. Don't know where it goes. They wouldn't let us go through it.

View into the garden from Wright's bed room in the south wing of the original structure.

Garden Room. This was connected to his library, but presently it seems to be a display of furniture and art work. The chair in the center is a Wright design inspired by Japanese origami.

This is the view west toward Phoenix. At one time there was a porch that allowed you to step out and be in the landscape. However, after relentlessly fighting the power company to reposition their transmission lines, he walled off the patio and reoriented the view to the garden.

A few of the art pieces in the Garden Room including, a bronze bust by Heloise Carter. This was her first bronze attempt. I have more for you later.

This dragon was a gift to the Wrights from (I think) the Japanese Emperor. It was designed to be a water fountain. Not buying into the oxymoron, Wright had it wired with a gas line and mounted in this courtyard. At nighttime, a four foot flame shoots out of his mouth.

The bell tower.

Wright was interested in music. In fact composers are often compared in the same breath with architects, because like architects, they don't create their medium, they arrange the units to make a beautiful whole. Wright took it literally by basing measurements on the scale of the notes.

The circular fountain. This one caught my attention audibly. The bell is the top of an agricultural storage tank and the ringers were glass floats that bobbled and struck the bell as the water rippled. Neat!

Wright had a fascination with movies. He was particularly fond of John Wayne. Here was a dinner theater in which he and his wife would allow students and invited guests to join them for a movie as they dined.

A mountain perch photo of the original complex looking towards Phoenix. Obviously before the power lines were put in, but it also was well before Phoenix grew to the size that it is today.

The following are sculptures by Heloise Carter. They are all bronze cast and they are all for sale (though replicas) and I think they go for 400-800 dollars depending on which one you want. These are some on my favorites.

Had to pose for that tourist photo! This is the site marker with the iconic shallow planter, only it's a fountain out here, and once again, it’s a cannibalized agricultural tank.

But look behind me....

I think somebody might be missing one of these!

Taliesin West is up there as the second project to hold up to the anticipated value. It was my first Wright project to actually go inside. I want to also see the other two spectrums he worked in, the Robie House in Chicago, IL and the Kaufman House in Bear Run, PA, which should provide me a complete spectrum of his potential and basis for my own personal evaluation.

Jason and I set out, almost disappointed to leave, but the sun was setting and he had to jump on his bike. We drove to the Northwest side of Phoenix, a little community called Surprise. No joke, Surprise, Arizona. Want proof, you can see my receipt from the Surprise Wal-Mart, that's where Jason got food for dinner and the days ahead. It also served as our separation point. The parking lot of a consumer discount big-box store is a stark contrast from the isolated and divinely natural beauty where I picked him up in Texas.

We got alot of strange looks while we were preparing his bike. He got a few good luck wishes and a few 'W.T.F.'s, but this is Jason, I doubt it fazed him at all. To help I gave him some of my road rations, a few packets of trail mix, sunflower seeds, and a sleeve of Oreos. After all, he probably needs to carbs!

Wal-Mart is definitely not his setting. But pedal onward my adventurous friend. I shot a video of him on his departure, and like the last video you'll have to wait for it. However it's quite hilarious. Jason gets all set for the road; he saddles up, and hits the trail. I keep the camera on him and say something cheesy like "We'll always have Arizona," but he keeps pedaling onward. You begin to hear me giggle in the background as I shout "Hey Jason, the highway is that way!"

That was the last time I saw Jason. We're supposed to meet up again in Oregon. I helped him out by carrying some stuff for him that was just going to weigh him down on the road. Plus it'll give me a good excuse to go back to Eugene.

After dropping him off, I hit the road for Tucson again. This drive took me through Glendale where I got the chance to see Peter Eisenman's University of Phoenix stadium. I think it would have been a better experience to go to a game, but the home team's next matchup was the Super Bowl in Tampa, but maybe some other time.

Over and out!

(Tucson, AZ)

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