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The mystical origins of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West

The Show’s Sam Dingman recently toured Taliesin West, the desert home and design studio of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Well, it’s a beautiful, serene place. And in talking to the folks that work there, there was this unmistakable tone of reverence — a sort of quasi-spiritual energy in terms of how they talk about Frank and his work," Sam Dingman said. "And as I learned when I looked into this, that’s because the work he did at Taliesin West had somewhat mystical origins."

Strange things do happen in the desert.

Full interview

DINGMAN: Awakening is possible only for those who seek it and want it, for those who are ready to struggle with themselves and work on themselves for a very long time and very persistently in order to attain it.

These are the words of the spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff — proponent of a mystical practice known as “The Work.” One of his most ardent acolytes was a dancer from Montenegro named Olgivanna Hinzenberg. Olgivanna spent years as one of the earliest students at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, performing sacred dances and listening to Gurdjieff’s lectures. In the '30s, Olgivanna married renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and a few years into their marriage, she had an idea: what if Frank had a school of his own?

TOUR GUIDE LAURA: Everyone go ahead and face the desert. Take that desert in. Much of what you’re seeing right now looks very similar as it did to Frank Lloyd Wright when he first arrived in 1937.

DINGMAN: About 30 minutes northeast of Phoenix, nestled in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, lies Taliesin West: a collection of low-slung, earth-tone buildings built directly into the craggy cliffs. This was the second home of Frank and Olgivanna — or, as everyone who works here calls them: “Mr. and Mrs. Wright.”

I took a tour of Taliesin West a few weeks ago. These days, the buildings contain expensive gift shops and plush offices. But back in the thirties, this is where Mr. and Mrs. Wright created what they called the Fellowship. The Fellowship was an architectural apprenticeship program, and it cost as much as tuition at Harvard. But Mr. Wright’s apprentices didn’t come here to wander the carpeted hallways of a traditional university. 

LAURA: Before we begin the tour, I just want to set the scene: where did you all sleep last night? In a bed? With a couple of walls, and maybe a roof over your head? Did you have coffee this morning?

DINGMAN: Beyond the elegant walls of Taliesin West, the desert stretches out in all directions. Pathways tumble abruptly into jagged washes, and green creosote bushes dot the otherwise brown expanse of rocks and dust. 

LAURA: So once you all find stable ground, face the desert, and actually close your eyes. I want you all to picture yourselves having moved away from the home that you grew up in, or your comfortable, cozy undergraduate dorm. And you’ve come out here and study under Frank Lloyd Wright, and live out here in the desert. The most notable part about being an apprentice was building your own shelter.

DINGMAN: As our tour guide, Laura, leads us deeper into the vast canyons, primitive structures rise abruptly from the sun-baked earth. Laura explains that when The Fellowship first got here, they slept in sheep tents. But over time, Mr. Wright let them build their own shelters. And there were rules.

LAURA: So Mr. Wright and the apprentices were always inspired by the nature when they were constructing and designing. They looked at the flora and the fauna, and they saw the ways in which those two things adapted to the environment. In fact Mr. Wright, he said that the saguaro, which is that cactus over there, was the greatest example of a skyscraper ever to be built. So I want you to all to picture yourselves as day 1 apprentices, and he’s just said the following quote to you: the great benefit to you all in being out here under these circumstances is to just get into it. Learn. Understand and appreciate what you see around you.  

DINGMAN: We approach the spartan dwellings — most of which look more like sculpture than shelter. There’s a two-story set of worn-out wood platforms, fused together with iron beams. A hundred yards away, a squat glass cube with a fire pit dug roughly into the rocks. 

LAURA: So this shelter behind me is called Skybox. And Chelsea Clark’s design is a beam and post design, which resembles unfinished construction.

DINGMAN: With a few exceptions, the shelters don’t have walls or doors.

LAURA: Are any of you afraid of mice? So some of you are afraid of mice — well, so was one of our apprentices. And every night, he kept waking up with a packrat in front of his face. And so when it came time for this apprentice to build his shelter, he built something that completely blocked out nature. So this was brought to the senior board of apprentices, and the senior board of apprentices approved his design. Is this really what you want to build? This goes against the Taliesin Tenets of Design. 

DINGMAN: If you’re a Frank Lloyd Wright fan, maybe you’ve heard the phrase “organic architecture.” This was a big part of Wright’s design philosophy — the idea that buildings should follow the patterns and shapes of the world around them. At Fallingwater, the home he designed for a department store magnate in Pennsylvania, stone walls mimic the rocks in the river the house sits along. New York City’s Guggenheim museum is built around a swirling ramp that forces the visitor’s perspective upward, echoing the experience of walking amongst the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Both buildings have their origins in the Fellowship, where apprentices worked on many of Wright’s most famous projects. 

NICKI STEWART: It’s probably the greatest way to encapsulate learning by doing.

DINGMAN: Nicki Stewart is the vice president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation — she works in one of those offices in the main building, which Taliesin workers call “the historic core.” As I was setting up my microphones, I noticed that Nicki had a couple of aphorisms scrawled on a white board.

Can you read those to me?

STEWART: I would love to. The first one says “misery is optional.”

DINGMAN: I asked Nicki about that apprentice who wanted to build a shelter that would keep rats out of his bed. 

STEWART: The design that he had created sealed off the whole world. And he took it to the approvers — they told him, great, you’re approved. But do you really want to be that cut off from this part of your experience? And he went and thought about it and realized that he was in a moment that he couldn’t get back? He wasn't going to be an apprentice forever. What if he didn’t cut himself off from it? 

DINGMAN: The Fellowship, Nicki explains, wasn’t about cutting yourself off. It was about opening yourself up. 

STEWART: So it wasn’t about becoming an architect — it was about being a part of this way of thinking that things should be seated in their location, nature inspire all the choices we make. 

DINGMAN: Mr. Wright had a vision for a world built on harmony. Not unlike Mrs. Wright’s guru. 

STEWART: In her time studying with George Gurdjieff, Olgivanna really understood and practiced a kind of work ethic that was about what Frank Lloyd Wright would’ve called “adding tired on tired.” You keep working as hard as you can until you get there. 

DINGMAN: So where is it, this place you’re trying to get? Gurdjieff believed that humanity had fallen into a kind of collective stupor. The goal of what he called The Work — capital T, capital W — was to awaken. As he put it: “When you come to the realization that the totality of yourself, what you have treasured, what your friends have admired, is totally useless, you will suffer. But we say that it is only from this point that there is any hope for your becoming. We are so incredibly small.

LAURA: So looking over here, we’ve come across a shelter that is a little difficult to look at. This is a shelter that was destroyed last year in one of our summer monsoons. I want you all to imagine yourselves as the apprentice who has designed the shelter. And you have just come out here into the desert, and you see your shelter in this condition.

DINGMAN: We all stood silently in the sun, staring at a small cottage with a caved-in roof. A few loose bits of shingling flapped in the breeze, and it occurred to me that if it weren’t for these ruins, there would be nothing for the wind to blow against. Almost a hundred years later, Mr. Wright’s legacy ripples in the desert air. After a few moments, Laura spoke again.

LAURA: Wood weakens. Rust corrodes. And the wind howls.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.