Frank Lloyd Wright's Legacy

Frank Lloyd Wright
Prepared His Taliesin Architects for the New Millennium

Arizona Corridors 1999

By LinDee Rochelle

[A 1999 article that provides insight to the man and his extraordinary works. Click here for a great place to peruse, enjoy, and purchase Frank Lloyd Wright art.]

            “What changes do you predict for your profession in the new millennium,” is a frequent journalistic query making the rounds of corporate boardrooms. It is a rhetorical question to the members of Taliesin Architects. This international network of elite professionals, still boasting a small contingent of original Frank Lloyd Wright apprentices, has been creating subtle changes in its field and our way of viewing architecture for forty years.

Wright’s death in 1959 was not an end, but a new beginning for his then, sixty-six-year-old firm. Remaining on site at Wright’s legendary Taliesin West in Scottsdale, and inspired by the foresight of Wright’s widow, Ogilvana, these dedicated architects would propel a visionary philosophy of “organic architecture” into what is now heralded as the architectural wave of the future.

While a seemingly long, evolutionary process, Taliesin Architects never tire of educating the public as well as their industry to the principles of organic architecture. Bill Mims, CEO and managing principal, describes Wright’s futuristic ideology as “… architecture appropriate to its time, its place, the materials of which it’s built, the needs and purposes of the user of the building. It should be in harmony with the earth, and grow out of its site. The architecture should transcend ordinary construction. It should be beautiful, it should lift the human spirit, and it should transcend the mundane.”

Wright’s organic architecture is not so much a philosophy as it is a way of life. It was his way of life. And while you could not always agree with the man, you could not dispute his uncanny way of knowing how to preserve the environment and soothe your soul, with a #2 pencil.

Though a veritable library of books can be found on the essence of Wright, none have yet to center on the firm and its continuation of his practice, emphasizing the “destruction of the box.” Wright once wrote, “Down all of the avenues of time, architecture was an enclosure by nature, and the simplest form of enclosure was the box. The box was ornamented, they put columns in front of it, pilasters and cornices on it, but they always considered an enclosure in terms of the box.” Knowing that the most economic support of the roof structure was not at the corner of the room, but at a distance in from the corner, he placed the supports at such a point, and found he had opened the corner to a natural flowing into adjoining rooms, or outward, to the vista.

Wright had mastered this concept by the time building began at Taliesin West in 1937. The entire complex is a consummate model of the destruction of the box. Frank Lloyd Wright was “thinking out of the box” decades before the phrase gained its current status as the new fad phrase in Hollywood.

Innovative thinking is nothing new at Taliesin Architects, according to CEO and managing principle, Bill Mims. “The principles of organic architecture do evolve. The underlying principle is the same. Mr. Wright identified and articulated a set of principles that under other circumstances, if you didn’t use his language, you’re just talking about excellent architecture that’s timeless. There are buildings that are thousands of years old that incorporate these same principles.”

John Rattenbury, one of a handful of original Wright apprentices still living and working at Taliesin West adds, “We grow through innovation. Clients who come to us tend to be more adventuresome. And we don’t have a client who wants to experiment, we experiment on ourselves.”

This is all well and good, but at the historical site of Taliesin West, much of its building materials were taken right from the ground on which it sits. Today, we may not have the option to choose to create our homes and offices with stones and artifacts quarried from the site. We can, however, create and build intelligently, to preserve our environment. Not simply its beauty, but its very lifeblood. Taliesin Architects is dedicated to exploring new forms and uses of materials, continuously researching into refreshing uses of common products, and aiding in creating new materials and techniques that will preserve their philosophy, and reinforce our need for strong environmental preservation practices in the next century.

For instance, following the stock market crash of 1929, there was a high demand for low cost housing. Wright answered the call with what he referred to as the Usonian Home. Built by the homeowner using standard materials, it was designed with simplicity in mind. The homeowner or contractor would cast 4” thick concrete blocks from metal molds. These blocks then interlocked with each other when stacked on their concrete base. With reinforcing bars placed both vertically and horizontally to provide wall strength, in one operation the final finish was formed, working like a giant set of children’s building blocks.

Individuality was achieved through decorative blocks with glass or artistic texture. It was a dream come true for post-Depression families, and homebuilders with only average construction skills. Many design and planning innovations were initiated by this concept, including the open floor plan, the construction grid system, and use of standard, natural materials.

Resurrecting this concept, Michael Rust, Director of Residential design, has been instrumental in the emergence of Nesco blocks, high-density, polyurethane blocks filled with lightweight concrete, based on Wright’s Usonian concrete blocks. Still in the development stages, they will allow the “do-it-yourselfer” to have a hand in not only designing, but building, his or her own home. They are part of what’s been dubbed the Genesis System by Rust and fellow developer, Steven R. Coultrap, president of Nesco Manufacturing, Inc. in Tempe. Rust explains, “It’s a new, cutting edge architecture combining the principles of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian block concept (the character and spatial feeling) with tomorrow’s building materials.”

Following Wright’s axiom of designing with “your head in the clouds, and your feet firmly planted on the ground,” Rust realizes that every client has a budget. In addition to the Monona Terraces, Guggenheims and Biltmores of the world, “Taliesin Architects can design for the common man who wants a nice house without a million-dollar budget. What we’re able to bring within that budget is pretty remarkable.” Senior architect, John Rattenbury, further explains, “Mr. Wright never turned anyone away. Neither does the firm. We are one of the few in the country than can handle any budget. We don’t want to limit ourselves to any one thing, and we won’t turn our back on small jobs. To us, it’s all architecture.”

Moving Taliesin Architects into the 21st century, however, CEO Mims sees their role expanding into every facet of design, on a large scale. “We are trying to focus on larger projects because we’re looking at ways to have a greater impact on society’s understanding of the role of the architect, and the benefits that can be derived from good design. And in general, finding ways to better society.” It’s no stretch to agree with Mims, “The fact of the matter is, resources are going to become more limited as population increases, worldwide. We are really the group that has the legacy toward this whole idea of building in harmony with the earth. You’re not just using whatever materials are available and using them to excess, but really trying to be sensitive to this whole issue of energy, and climate, and intelligent use of materials.”

This brings Taliesin Architects to the task of balancing human needs with nature’s limitations for the new millennium. How can they lead the architectural community to a path that will help us sustain life as we desire it, given our current rate of population growth? Affordable housing and redevelopment -- “In that regard,” asks Mims, “how can you look at dealing with the existing infrastructure instead of building new infrastructure? You have areas that are considered less desirable. How can you make them desirable again?” Mims wants Taliesin Architects to make a beautiful circumstance out of redevelopment, rather than simply subsistence housing.

Mims illustrates, “We have to find out how to push design excellence at all levels to move into the new millennium. That’s everything from the vase standing in the corner, to the streetscape, to landplaning, to urban planning, to rebuilding infrastructure, to working on transportation systems.” This includes, for example, a bridge in current production, which will span Interstate 94 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and connect two arts communities. The imaginative bridge has been added to their long list of diverse projects encompassing widely acclaimed cultural and performing arts centers, health care facilities, resort hotels, civic centers, and even a master plan for the Phoenix Zoo.

Frank Lloyd Wright asked, “What is architecture anyway? Is it the vast collection of the various buildings, which have been built to please the varying taste of the various lords of mankind? No, I think not. I know that architecture is life; or at least it is life itself taking form and, therefore, is the truest record of life as it was lived in the world yesterday, as it is lived today, or ever will be lived.” (An Organic Architecture, 1939)

From sweeping office parapets, accommodating a grand view of the city, to visionary homes barely discernible as they nestle into the mountainside, Mr. Wright understood the needs of our planet in an era when most others were unaware of the perils we were placing on our future. Taliesin Architects strive to preserve the integrity of his ideals and designs, while adapting them to our needs, products, and resources of today – and tomorrow.

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Arizona Corridors, November 1999

© 1999, LinDee Rochelle