A tale of the other Taliesin: The great American architect's famed Arizona outpost revolved around design, community, and food.
The American Institute of Architects called Frank Lloyd Wright “the greatest American architect of all time.” Though the Wisconsin native is most often associated with the Prairie-style homes he created in Chicago and its suburbs and with Fallingwater, the private residence he designed outside of Pittsburgh that the AIA deemed “the best all-time work of American architecture,” the Midwestern master had a decidedly Western bent and a long and influential chapter in Arizona.
Committed to organic architecture — designing homes in tune with their environment and their inhabitants — Wright had a burgeoning Midwestern clientele. But he found he needed a respite from the ice and snow, so in 1937 Wright and his third wife, Serb Montenegrin dancer Olgivanna Lazovich, headed west to Arizona. The couple had already had a trial run with an Arizona winter retreat when Wright oversaw construction of the Arizona Biltmore in Chandler in 1927, and when the couple had honeymooned in Phoenix in 1928.
Now, building for Olgivanna and himself, Wright chose the beautiful Sonoran desert, in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in northeast Scottsdale. (“Oh, we have to build here,” he was quoted as saying. “This is pure abstraction wherever you look.”)
He named his winter outpost Taliesin West. It was the desert complement to Taliesin, the summer home he had built for his paramour Mamah Cheney near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Both retreats were a nod to his mother’s Welsh heritage — Taliesin was a Welsh bard who sang the praises of the arts. The Arizona location was not only to be a winter haven for Frank and Olgivanna: It would also be a studio school for his many architecture apprentices. Eventually it would become the couple’s final resting place and the archive of the architect’s legacy (today it houses the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture).
While Wright was alive, Taliesin West was the epicenter of American architecture and design. It was here that he would design New York’s Guggenheim Museum. And it was here that he would experiment with a living, working community of architects and apprentices, seasoning the daily work of designing and drafting with a lifestyle filled with rock collecting, entertaining, and cooking. It was here, too, that the dark-haired woman he had met by chance at a matinee performance of the Petrograd ballet company would make lasting contributions to her husband’s life’s work.
Olgivanna brought much to the table — figuratively and literally. She helped create an atmosphere in which Wright would be his most productive (after his death, she would be instrumental in seeing that the architecture training program remained viable in a changing world). And she made the kitchen hum, keeping her husband and his architectural apprentices well-fed with resourceful recipes from her homeland.
Taliesin West required self-sufficiency, something Wright believed in and had first implemented during the Depression, allowing students who couldn’t afford tuition to work it off on his Wisconsin farm. They planted, tended, and tilled his large vegetable garden. They took care of pigs, cows, chickens, and other free-range animals. They butchered cows and chickens for food and also had their own eggs, milk, butter, buttermilk, cottage cheese, and yogurt made from the milk and cream right there on the farm. They also canned — apple butter, corn, tomatoes, and a variety of jams — sometimes putting up as many as 200 2-quart jars of each.
Since it was 13 miles over rough trails through the desert from Taliesin West to the then small village of Scottsdale in those early years, self-sufficiency was the order of the day in Arizona as well. Arriving in the desert with canned food from Wisconsin, the couple knew the first priority was water and immediately invested in a well.
Both the Wrights and their apprentices lived in tents as they began construction on permanent shelters. Like a big family, everybody pitched in, and that included cooking. Those who could cook did, and those who could not either learned or helped in the kitchen.
Indira Berndtson spent much of her childhood at Taliesin West when her mother, Cornelia Brierly, apprenticed and later went back to work for the Wrights. Now a member of Taliesin West’s archives staff, Berndtson says that Olgivanna taught several apprentices to cook traditional Eastern European dishes, including baked goods like a whole-wheat bread using blackstrap molasses and an Easter baba with a sweet cheese spread called pascha, which became the staple for Easter Sunday brunches. She also taught apprentices how to make grape and dandelion wine, and plum jam.
Brierly’s book, Tales of Taliesin, describes the kitchen as the heart of Taliesin family life: “ ... a large black iron stove dominated the ample space. The stove kept every cook busy stoking it with kindling wood, from four in the morning until the evening dinner.” With no thermostats or oven thermometers, heat was hand-tested. “Mrs. Wright taught all of us to cook simplified dishes like stews of meat and vegetables or other inexpensive dishes that used our farm produce. However, from her translations of old Yugoslavian and Russian cookbooks of czarist days, we enjoyed a varied menu.”
In the 1930s and ’40s, Berndtson explains, some apprentices satisfied tuition by taking turns cooking for a week at a time, assisted by two other apprentices. Later, an even larger number of apprentices shared cooking duties, while those not cooking main meals might be assigned to making cookies or cakes for afternoon teas. Frank and Olgivanna were gregarious, and there was a considerable amount of entertaining, with apprentices doing the cooking. After surrounding roads were improved, the Wrights would invite as many as 100 guests from town to social gatherings at Taliesin West.
Even when times were lean, Frank and Olgivanna always set a good, nourishing table around which creative and intellectual discussions of art and architecture thrived. Today, the kitchen at Taliesin West remains a hub of activity and creativity, and apprentices still work with the chefs on a wide array of cuisine. “When classes are in session we cook for about 27 students, faculty, and fellows,” says Taliesin West chef Safari Nash. A San Diego native and international chef, Nash says there is such an emphasis on teaching students to cook because the school wants to carry forward the great tradition established by the Wrights. On special occasions, he even prepares and serves Olgivanna’s special sponge cake that Frank loved so much.
From the January 2013 issue.