Desert Heritage

Frank Lloyd Wright Scottsdale home inscribed to UNESCO World Heritage List

Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most prominent architects of the 20th century, envisioned a world in which structures harmonized with both humanity and the environment, a balance achieved in an innovative portfolio that has greatly influenced how individuals built and lived.

Wright’s vision and contributions to the field of architecture achieved a significant milestone this summer when a collection of eight of his major works spanning 50 years was inscribed to the UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage List. One of those works is Taliesin West in Scottsdale.

“A UNESCO inscription is the greatest honor you can receive. It’s highly beneficial and will increase visitor-ship and help support and preserve a unique part of American history for future generations,” says Fred Prozzillo, vice president of preservation of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

There are more than 1,000 World Heritage sites around the world, and Wright’s series is now among only 24 sites in the U.S. and the first modern architecture collection recognized as a cultural one in the country. His works join impressive World Heritage designees, among them the Pyramids of Egypt, the Roman Colosseum, The Great Wall of China and, of course, the Grand Canyon.

UNESCO evaluates the international importance of a potential World Heritage site, both natural and cultural, based on its outstanding universal value. Wright’s series met the qualifications because the architecture responds to functional and emotional needs, design of the buildings is fundamentally rooted in nature’s forms and principles, and the architecture responds to the evolving American experience but is universally appealing.

Taliesin West began as an experimental camping adventure to test Wright’s design theories that ultimately became a vital artistic and cultural incubator, helping establish his role in the development and evolution of modern architecture during the first half of the 20th century—and which continues to inspire contemporary building design.

Situated on 600 acres in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, Taliesin West takes its name from Wright’s Wisconsin home, Spring Green, and served as his winter escape and school from 1937 until his death in 1959 at age 91. The desert compound, also a National Historic Landmark, was built and maintained largely by the architect and his apprentices.

“The landscape, the plant life and the mountains of the Sonoran Desert inspired Wright in different ways,” Prozzillo says. “We’re fortunate that he choose Arizona to be his winter home and all of us should be proud and excited about the World Heritage site designation.”

To preserve the desert environment, Wright embedded structures into the landscape and used local rock set in wooden forms bound by a mixture of cement and desert sand to construct Taliesin West. Other defining features include canvas roofs to allow light into the interior spaces and the use of redwood beams to incorporate Wright’s favorite Cherokee red accents.

Today, Taliesin West is a living museum and educational workspace that houses Wright’s office and personal living quarters, a drafting room for students, a full kitchen, a large theater, a small cabaret, and housing for residents and staff. A series of walkways, terraces, pools and gardens connect the buildings. The complex also is home to the School of Architecture (a three-year immersive master of architecture program) and the Frank Loyd Wright Foundation.

Taliesin West is open to the public and visitors can participate in several guided tours that showcase Wright’s “organic architecture” concepts including the open floor plan, indoor/outdoor living, and innovative use of natural light and material, and give a glimpse into the pioneering architect’s life in Arizona. Special events are also held throughout the year that celebrate the life and work of Wright and his imprint on society.

The UNESCO designation brings global awareness to works created by Wright, but also to the nearly 400 remaining structures he designed. In addition, it will help boost cultural preservation efforts and awareness that are necessary to help fund and maintain the sites and protect Wright’s legacy in modern architecture.

While Taliesin West was, however, one of Wright’s more personal projects, his influence and scope reached across continents and translated to locations that were dramatically different than how Americans lived and built. Being named as a World Heritage site proves that his concepts were, in fact, universal, and hold value to all mankind, according to Prozzillo.

“It confirms Wright’s effort to change the way we live and build—and that the two should relate. His work is not just important to the American population but all humanity. The values and ideas that Wright developed transcend borders, other cultures and landscapes, and remain relevant.”


Story: Sally J. Clasen

Photo: Andrew Pielage, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

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