Taliesin highlights ‘organic’ architecture

Thousands of people visit the home each year.

SPRING GREEN, Wis. (AP) — Thousands come each year to the Wisconsin River valley where Frank Lloyd Wright built his home and tested his ideas about building in harmony with nature.

Nestled on a hillside overlooking the river, Wright’s Taliesin has the cantilever roofs, wide windows, great room and open floor plan that became some of the architect’s trademarks.

The design concepts, revolutionary in Wright’s time, are now widely taught in architecture schools and common among builders concerned about the environment.

“He spans generations,” said Robert Mattison, a professor of art history and architecture at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. “There is a parallel between [Wright’s] idea of organic architecture and what we call sustainability today, and that’s what makes it interesting.”

Wright is often associated with Chicago, where he established his career, and Arizona, where he spent much of his later years and established his foundation.

But the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest architect” had lifelong ties to the southwestern Wisconsin valley settled by his mother’s family. He was born in 1867 in nearby Richland Center and spent many summers working on his uncles’ farms in Spring Green.

The village sits amid the rolling hills of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, so-called because the glaciers that scraped the rest of the state bypassed it. Here, Wright developed an appreciation for nature and many of the ideas he would later incorporate in his work.

Wright returned to Spring Green in 1911 and built Taliesin on a hill overlooking the Wisconsin River. He used local limestone and mixed sand from the river into his plaster.

Wright’s use of indigenous materials reflects a desire to connect with the land, Mattison said. “But that can also make sense in terms of sustainability because you’re shipping the materials less distance.”

Wright used glass to great effect in Taliesin’s living room, where tall windows provide a spectacular view and further the architect’s goal of breaking down barriers between the interior and exterior.

The windows also provide natural light, which is defused by the overhanging roof so that the house remains cool, Mattison said: “That’s something we think about as sustainable today.”

Wright rebuilt the house twice, after fires in 1914 and 1925. He expanded the home each time so that the complex with his studio and stable now has about 24,000 square feet.

The agricultural wing was converted to living quarters in 1932 for members of the Taliesin Fellowship, now the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.

Some of the original fellowship members still live there, while current apprentices stay at the nearby Hillside Studio, where they can be seen working during some tours.

Wright treated his home as a laboratory, making changes for the rest of his life. He didn’t worry too much about the quality of construction because at any moment he might have a new idea and renovate again.

Thus, in the living room and alcoves, gaps between the window panes and stone walls let in air and moisture. Wright didn’t bother to have grooves cut into the stone so the glass could be inserted and sealed.

Such idiosyncrasies challenge historians and preservationists working to maintain the house, said Keiran Murphy, a historic researcher for the nonprofit Taliesin Preservation, Inc. Changes that could help keep the house intact aren’t always in keeping with Wright’s intent, she said.

For example, a second-story addition hastily built for guests in 1943 while Wright was campaigning for the Guggenheim Museum commission weakened the home’s structure. TPI is carefully trying to shore it up without detracting from Wright’s design.

“It just does not appear that he cared what was going to happen to the structure as he was moving walls around,” Murphy said.

Mattison said that wasn’t unusual for Wright: “He does take risks.”

TPI has been working since 1990 to restore Taliesin’s buildings and landscape to their condition when Wright died in 1959.

Studies show another $90 million to $150 million will be needed to complete the work on the 600-acre estate, TPI President Carol Johnson said.

About 21,000 people visit Taliesin each year from May 1 to Oct. 31.

Tours don’t run during the winter because there’s no heat: Wright removed most of the buildings’ furnaces after he started spending colder months in Arizona.

Hedy Knapp, 46, and her husband, Bob Knapp, 47, began visiting Wright sites after moving to the Chicago area several years ago.

They admire his use of land and the way his designs move people from compressed to open spaces.

“I don’t think that they’re necessarily livable in a comfortable way that we’re used to,” Hedy Knapp said, noting Taliesin’s small kitchen and bathrooms wouldn’t find favor today. “But I think they’re beautiful.”

Kim Yeager, 52, of Lakewood, Ohio, rode his motorcycle about 530 miles to tour Taliesin.

He has visited dozens of Wright buildings in the past year or so, and his trip to Wisconsin included the SC Johnson Wax headquarters in Racine, Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in Madison and Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Milwaukee.

“I really love that style,” said Yeager, an artist who works in glass and wood. “I wanted to see what he built for himself.”