K Paoletter 17: Climate Control

Taliesin West

When, in the 1930s, Frank Lloyd Wright set his Arizona apprentices to clear some land for a permanent camp in the McDowell Mountains north of Scottsdale, they turned up a curious object. Stones were general in the hills, and some of them bore petroglyphic runes the students assumed had been left behind by the Hohokam, the pre-Columbian people who had eked out a living there for several centuries. One slab bore a human figure, an animal shape, and a curious square spiral that Wright imagined as a figuration of two hands shaking. The simple line work of that last mark was adapted into Wright’s signature geometric expressionist style, and it became the symbol of Taliesin West, his winter home and architecture school. That stone was the first point of inspiration for the building Wright derived from the indigenous cultures of Arizona— it would also be the last.

Situated amid some 620 acres of only modestly developed hills, Taliesin West remains an impressive feat of architecture, an alluring adaptation of the low, spacious homes Wright had earlier pioneered in the Midwest to what he perceived as the more rapturous, angular spaces of the Sonoran Desert. Seeking to evoke the jaggedness of peaks like Camelback Mountain and the thread-sharp prickers of cactuses, as well as elict the play of light and shadow that is everywhere apparent in the Southwestern landscape, Wright built his walls out of the stones that had been cleared from the hillside and had his student imprint triangular grooves along their length. Rather than rely on the clean, right angles he had favored for his prairie homes, he set every vertical plane at a 15º angle, enough to create a strikingly disjunctive appearance without teetering all the way over into mawkishness.

These decisions preceded from one of Wright’s core tenets, that the best architecture was what “belonged where you see it standing—and is a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace.” But for all his attunement to the physical space where he built Taliesin West, Wright was shockingly unconcerned with the climate that shaped it. The walls that were not made of foraged rock were fashioned of glass; so were the ceilings, albeit covered over with fabric to diffuse the light that passed through them. All the glass is lovely in the winter, maximizing sunlight when the weather is mild and days are short. In the summer, though? Taliesin West is a meticulously constructed greenhouse.

Of course, Wright never was there in the summer, so why should he mind? From May until October, he returned with his wife to their  home in Wisconsin, exercising a privilege of means that most residents of the Southwest are hardly afforded. After Wright’s death in 1959, Taliesin West was transformed into a museum, meaning it was necessary to tweak the building to make it habitable year round. In the 1990s, the carpet of the long, lovely living room had a trench cut in it so that an A/C vent could be installed. Even the complex’s small movie theater, the only room with no windows, now showcases the sort of climate control unit one buys at Home Depot— and a good thing too, because the homebrew concrete the room’s walls are made from means it would otherwise operate as a very large oven when the mercury inevitably surged past 100 º.

That Taliesin West is so overtly a winter home is a testament to Wright’s limited perspective of life in the desert. Rather than engage with the enormously successful architecture of the region’s indigenous peoples to produce a building that not only fit into the visual language of the landscape but—more meaningfully— made that landscape survival, he preferred to ignore all that and start from scratch to make a building that fit his very specific needs, and those needs only.

The complex is an enormous success on those terms. But is it the exemplar of modernist architecture adapted to the Southwest, as it has so widely been cited? Hardly. For all its lovely lines and exuberant experimentation, Taliesin West is a dispiritingly short-sighted building, one reflective of the worse proclivities of the Anglo settlers who amassed in Phoenix throughout the 20th Century. It, like many retirees from elsewhere, wants to take the sunlight of the desert but leave behind the heat; enjoy the views of distant, bare mountains while also pumping ungodly amounts of water from a dwindling aquifer to keep the front lawn green.

No, if you ever find yourself in Arizona and feel the need to search out some fine bits of modernism, better to look to structures like the far less romantic Tempe Municipal Building, which Michael and Kemper Goodwin designed around an inverted glass pyramid whose sides run into the ground at 45º angles, meaning less than 20% of the sun’s heat is able to pass through it. On a smaller scale, Judith Chaffee’s visionary homes in Tucson showcase a fusion of modern lines with the building approaches of the Southwest’s heritage. Her signature is sheltering courtyards and patios with an elegant ramada, a wooden lattice that draws you outside to enjoy the light while still offering a cooling respite from the sun.

Or, feel free to ignore modernism (whatever that term can be even said to mean these days) altogether, and simply enjoy the unassuming innovation of adobe, the building material that, several thousand years after its development, remains most suitable to the conditions of the Southwest. Its clay bricks insulate heat in the winter and breath cool in the summer; the softness of their form does not invoke the jaggedness that Wright so equated with the Southwest, but instead provides a restful balm to it. It’s easy to mock the building standards of Santa Fe, where even Burger King is forced to design its buildings to not look out of place with what you can find in the 400-year-old plaza, yet its undeniable that city, as well as the old towns of Albuquerque and Tucson, feel more attuned to the climate of the Southwest than any structure designed for those burgs over the past century.

One can, of course, hardly render a municipal building or a skyscraper entirely out of adobe bricks. Still, its remarkable to see new condos, big box stores, and even single-family homes still being erected all over the Southwest’s booming cities, nearly all of them in stark defiance of the only sort of architecture that has a demonstrated track record of enduring there. Instead, glass and steel remain the order of the day, same as you’d find anywhere. Who cares about the heat— that’s what air conditioning is for.

Last week, I wrote an essay for Real Life about Vine and how the compilations of its six-second videos that are all over YouTube can help us anticipate the sort of mental gymnastics that will be necessary to making sense of the social media age once the likes of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all inevitably bite the dust. I also have a short report on high-rent blight in Harvard Square in the latest issue of Boston, and made a (brief) appearance on an episode of Bloomberg Radio’s Baystate Business show to talk about it. And in a very pleasing turn of events, the Spanish magazine Contexto was kind enough to translate my Baffler essay from last fall about fandoms taking over American pop culture— Spanish-speaking media grumps, rejoice!

Documentaries have become so common in recent years that it’s easy to roll your eyes when your timeline goes into paroxysms every couple months after a new one pops up on Netflix. But then again, none of those documentaries are as delightfully entertaining as HBO’s McMillion$. It turns out that nearly every million-dollar prize that McDonald’s once-inescapable Monopoly promotion (you know, the one with the little pieces you peeled off your fry carton) awarded throughout the 1990s went to a ring of mob-adjacent scoundrels. As if the scam wasn’t plenty weird enough on its own, the interviews that tell the story of how it was uncovered feature a parade of oddballs, like a zany FBI detective and a woman from the Colombo crime family who dresses entirely in red (including her hair). It’s just about the most American story I can imagine.

Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing. You can find me at my website, or on the couch cocooned in an elaborate collection of fleecy blankets.

Your pal,

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