Taliesin West Scottsdale, Arizona

Taliesin West: Scottsdale, Arizona

No trip to the desert south-west would be complete without spending some serious time at Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, studio and school of architecture.  We were not at all disappointed.  We toured the apprentices shelters and also the main buildings of Taliesin West.

Apprentice Shelter Tour

We started our day by taking the Apprentice Shelter tour.  I strongly recommend it!  It is a 2 hour tour (advertised as 90 minutes) where you are lead through the desert by two Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture fellowship members to see their personal places and where they live.

Basic Shelter

In their first year, they are required to sleep in a 10’x10′ canvas tent in the desert (for women it is optional).  There are locker rooms for them to store valuables and to bathe in, as well as common areas that are more comfortable than these tents.  These are mostly for sleeping and quiet study in the evenings.  They’re built on a wood frame and supposedly are quite cozy.

Shelter from a distance.

This tradition started back in the 1930s, when Wright first came to Taliesin West.  At that time, there wasn’t money to build a lot of nice living space, so everyone (including the Wrights) lived in such tents.  The tour takes you past the foundations of the pads where the Wright’s tent was first erected, as well as the tent sites for many of the original apprentices.

As you gain experience in the fellowship, you’re able to move up into more substantial living spaces.  Many students build their own shelters using guidelines set forth by the fellowship.  All of the interesting student shelters were built as part of a student’s education at the fellowship.

Open shelter built in 1953

This is one of my favorite shelters.  It is completely open on one side, but is sheltered from the wind.  It does get cold at night, but a good sleeping bag is enough to make it confy.  Just make sure you check your sleeping bag for scorpions before you climb in!

Another view.

The shelters have been added to over the years.  Each student that lives in a shelter is responsible for maintaining it and is allowed to add their own touches to the shelter in the process.

Steel Roofed Shelter

This one was also open to the desert on most sides.  It was one of the more significant designs.  It was beautiful inside, though the ceiling was rather low.  The guidelines for building a shelter include rules that govern the funding of the construction and materials.  Each student is allowed only $1000 for the construction of their shelter.  They’re not allowed to contribute any of their own money towards its construction…. only their labor.

Overhang of steel roofed shelter.

They are, however able to solicit donations from building contractors and suppliers to contribute to the project.  This teaches them to work with suppliers and contractors.  It also helps the students get very involved in the process of building their shelter instead of just paying a craftsman to do the work.  They work hands-on with the contractors that donate materials and labor and by doing so are able to learn the techniques themselves.  The steel roofing of this shelter was done partially by the contractor and partially by the students who were building the shelter.

Hanging Shelter

Certainly this is one of the strangest shelters on site.  The living space is suspended from the steel I-beams with thick steel cables.  It is steadied by other cables so it doesn’t swing around in the wind too much.

Another View of the Hanging Shelter.

Though the aesthetic is quite dramatic, there are some practical issues that make this a less than ideal place to live.  First of all, it acts as a lightning rod.  I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near that place when the weather rolls in.  Second, it is loud.  The cables pretty constantly whistle in the wind.  One of the main reasons that people are not too thrilled with this shelter is that it required a lot of excavation to build the foundation to root the steel beams.  It will take many many years for the ground around this shelter to return to its natural state… if it ever does.  It is definitely interesting to look at.  For legal reasons, we were not allowed to climb up in the shelter.  In fact, the woman who is supposed to be living in it, just stores a few things there, but sleeps in the dorm every night.

Low Shelter

Not all the shelters are elaborate and eye catching like the hanging shelter.  Many are simple, yet beautiful shelters that hug the ground and complement the terrain upon which they are built.

Rumblestone Shelter

This shelter had a significant “desert rumblestone” foundation.  The walls and foundation were formed by making plywood forms and filling them with rocks.  Concrete was then poured over the rocks and then left to set.  Most of the buildings at Taliesin West were built this way.

Back of Rumblestone Shelter

The roof of this shelter was cantilevered from the framework out back.  From a distance it looks like a scaffolding, but up close the design fits beautifully with its surroundings.

Glass Brick Shelter

The student who built this shelter got significant help and donations from a company that makes and installs glass brick.  The design is beautiful, but I’m not sure how cool it is in the daytime.  In the summer, everything is unbearable, but even in the spring it gets up into the 90s.  I think this might work nicely as a solar oven.

This student didn’t throw stones.

Some of the shelters have become famous.  I’d seen pictures of this next one on the web for quite a few years now.  It wasn’t until I stood in it and got a feel for the space that I understood its appeal and its beauty.

This steel structure looks kind of like an abandoned trailer at first.

Or an old tool shed.

But once you look closely at it, you’ll see that it is really very beautiful.  The rust of the steel matches the colors around it.  From the inside it is warm, but not hot.  The cross ventilation is designed to really keep the place cool.  It is light and fairly roomy.  It is one of the larger structures built by the apprentices as shelters.

This makes the shelter look like it belongs there.

Glass and concrete block shelter

This was by far the most comfortable shelter of the bunch.  It was built by someone who wanted an aesthetically pleasing shelter that was also livable.  It wasn’t just built to look neat or use interesting building techniques.

Inside the glass and concrete block shelter

Oddly enough, though this was the most comfortable shelter, it was only lived in for a month before the student graduated and left the fellowship.  It is now the most sought-after shelter by the students and is usually occupied by the senior fellowship member.

Steam ship shelter

To me this looks like an old steam ship.  It is currently not inhabited. The design is sure interesting though.

About the author

brad smith
Brad Smith

Brad Smith is an experienced interior designer and the founder of OmniHomeIdeas.com. With a Master's degree in Interior Design from Pratt Institute and a passion for creating safe and healthy living spaces, Brad shares his expert insights and innovative design ideas with our readers. His work is driven by the belief that home is where every story begins.

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