November 6, 2017
Dramatic Frank Lloyd Wright–Designed Performance Space Restored
The Music Pavilion at Taliesin West, Wright’s desert home, was recently refurbished to its near-original state.
Courtesy Andrew Pielage
Standing in the Music Pavilion at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Scottsdale, Arizona outpost, it’s impossible to ignore associations to fire. The room is slathered in a deep, burning red—the architect’s favorite color. The hue seemingly predicted the structure’s fate: a few years after the master’s death, a great fire engulfed the place, leaving just the foundations and low sidewalls made of “desert stone,” the concrete rubble Wright wrought among the cacti and hills.
When the Music Pavilion was rebuilt by Taliesin apprentices in the mid-1960s, it was done with sturdier stuff, mainly steel. This is the structure that stands today, the same one visited by thousands every year on guided tours of Wright’s desert home. If they manage to tear their eyes away from that blazing red in the Music Pavilion, they may also notice the delicate canvas roof overhead, which diffuses the intense sun and renders it a soft, uniform white.
Until very recently, the effect was less than ethereal. A combination of acrylic and canvas panels treated with fire retardant may have helped to keep the structure watertight, but it cast a murky glow. The appearance, according to Fred Prozzillo, Taliesin West’s director of preservation, was “unseemly” and similar to stained parchment. But earlier this year, Prozzillo and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation were approached by fabric manufacturer Sunbrella about an opportunity: the company was willing to donate 450 yards of material to replace the blotched cotton canvas and restore the room to its “historical character,” says Prozzillo. “The results are dramatic.”
Like several of the facilities at Taliesin West, the pavilion was designed in a somewhat improvisatory manner, making restoration tricky (period photographs depict Wright on a makeshift worksite, cane extended outward, offering impromptu instruction to his student laborers). It’s telling that no measured drawings of the campus, nor of its individual buildings, were ever made. It was only in 2015 that the Chicago architect and Wright connoisseur Gunny Harboe submitted a preservation master plan for the site, which Prozzillo hopes will direct his efforts over the next decade or longer.
One of Harboe and the foundation’s ambitions was to reintroduce the canvas Wright had specified in many of the pavilions onsite. This was an honest, threadbare response to desert conditions, which Wright first encountered in the late 1920s when he was designing a massive (and unrealized) resort nearby. He had built a temporary work camp of canvas tents to accommodate his crew of delineators. These airy enclosures were meant to be a temporary solution, but they ended up becoming a part of Taliesin West’s architectural DNA.
Courtesy the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)
“Wright just took two-by-four frames, wrapped them in canvas, and placed them between beams,” Prozzillo says. The material had the additional benefit of “wonderfully filtering daylight,” which obviated the need for artificial lighting (the campus was without electricity for some time, mostly running off a diesel generator). Yet, this protracted exposure to the elements wreaked havoc on the canvas. The cotton fabric had to be changed every two years or so.
Seasonality had always been a core feature of the Taliesin lifestyle. In Arizona, Wright waited out the harsh winters of Wisconsin, where he held court from Taliesin Spring Green. Along with students, his family, and other members of his entourage, he shuffled back and forth between Taliesins East and West, alternating with the cold and hot months. But after Wright’s death, and with the contemporaneous founding of the Taliesin Associated Architects and the consolidation of the archives, Taliesin West became a year-round hub. This change necessitated air conditioned buildings, which, in turn, resulted in the installation of fiberglass panels, in the Music Pavilion and elsewhere.
In an attempt to retrieve something of the original aura, the acrylic-and-canvas composite replaced the fiberglass panels in the late 1990s, around the time Prozzillo was studying at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, now renamed the School of Architecture at Taliesin. Later, a fire retardant was added to the fabric, which hastened its discoloring. The hybrid solution remains, only the old canvas has been upgraded to Sunbrella Plus Natural fabric “in a color as close as they could get to what was already there,” says Gina Wicker, the company’s director of A&D markets. After a visit to Taliesin West earlier in the year, Wicker says she admired the commitment to Wright’s teachings of the staff and the still-living apprentices, a handful of which have remained on the grounds for decades.
Not too far away in Phoenix are Sunbrella’s test facilities, where fabrics are tested in outdoor environments and purposefully weathered. “This part of the Southwest is the most brutal environment for any textile,” Wicker explains. “It’s one thing to test a product in a lab, but totally different to have it in a real-world application.” Sunbrella fabric is used in various locales around the Phoenix area, she clarifies, but none with the pedigree of Taliesin West. She hopes to deepen the partnership, perhaps lending material to the school’s student shelter-building program: “It would be a good test-case for us. Any time you put a product in the hands of a student, you never know what you’re going to get.”
A felicitous side-effect of the Music Pavilion’s material upgrade, according to Prozzillo, is the improved acoustic quality of the space. He hopes his intuition will be affirmed not just by hard numbers (an acoustical engineer will be brought in to measure audio levels) but by audiences. In part of a continued bid to activate Taliesin West as a cultural center, the foundation has launched new site-specific programming. For instance, it has invited local theater companies to stage productions within the Music Pavilion. “It’s one thing to walk through these spaces on a tour, and hear a tour guide talk about them,” Prozzillo offers, “but when you actually sit down and you see a performance and you experience the space the way Wright intended, it can be a really transformative experience.”
You may also enjoy “What Frank Lloyd Wright Can Teach Us About the Future of Architectural Education.”