I don’t have much scheduled in Phoenix after my time at St. Mary’s Food Bank and know little about the city. To find activities, I Google search “Top 10 Things To Do in Phoenix.” On the fourth page of the list on some website, I spy a short blurb about Taliesin West, the Frank Lloyd Wright estate to the North of here. I have never visited a Wright house – and love the Guggenheim in NYC – so figure it would be worth a trip.
I arrive in the late afternoon, intent on capturing the right light in photos. Tours are required; no one is allowed to wander around the home unescorted. A Brooklyn native working the ticket counter assumes I am with the man in front of me and offers two options. “You can take a 90-minute Highlights tour leaving in 5 minutes or a 60-minute tour leaving in 45 minutes.” It’s a no brainer. Both the man in front of me and I take the earlier tour.
We each reach for our wallets. He buys two tickets with an American Express Black Card. When I try to pay for my own ticket, the woman comments, “Oh, you’re not TOGETHER?” Her NY accent dominates the area. “No,” I say, “I’m single.” The other man laughs and walks over to his boyfriend who glares at me. I cup my own credit card to prevent the men from seeing it and pay for my single ticket.
Carol, a goofy, brown-haired tour guide, invites “all red tickets” to join her in the courtyard. I like her instantly and she brings Taliesin to life. Outside, Carol introduces us to the “Phoenix landscape.” It seems an odd place to start but makes sense soon as I realize that FLW buildings are all about context. “Notice the hills around the house,” Carol says. “Frank would never build on top of a hill because it would obscure, well, the hill.” The main feature in Taliesin, based on the surrounding mountains, is a triangle. It’s a shape, and non-shape, I might add, that repeats over and over in the structures here.
Mr. Black Card smiles and makes several comments to me about the architecture (“nice chair; it’s actually comfortable”) before introducing himself as Dave. He and his “partner” are visiting from the UK for a Thunderbird B-School reunion in the area. The boyfriend, also an amateur photographer, keeps his distance – and a close eye. It’s a funny juxtaposition: Dave seems to be wagging his tail, the BF seems to be showing his teeth.
The tour enters Wright’s office where he drew and presented work. Carol clears up any confusion about FLW’s height. “The average height of a man back then was 5’7”, Frank was 5’8”, so he was actually tall for his generation.” It’s one of those bits of information that adds to the experience and explains why the building’s clearance is low, and the chairs sit so close to the ground. I try different seats along the way to get the full experience; some are quite comfortable.
Next, we enter the entertaining room. “Mr. Wright and his wife had connections to Hollywood and often watched unedited movies sent up from friends,” Carol notes. “His wife said that Frank would watch just about anything.” Walking through the concrete tomb of an entertaining room, Dave comments, “It feels like I could build this myself.” And, in a way, it does. Taliesin makes modern architecture look years ahead, but also out of context and sterile.
The tour ends. I thank Carol and say goodbye to Dave and his boyfriend, who smiles tightly at me, then looks me up and down before walking away. I don’t dare suggest the three of us get together for drinks or dinner. In the end, Taliesin reminds me to pay attention to the context, not only physical, but also situational. I guess if I had a boyfriend with a Black Card, I might also squint tightly at the single dudes.