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Down on the Farm: Frank Lloyd Wright

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As he approached his seventieth year, the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright endured a bout of pneumonia during a Wisconsin winter.

"You could add twenty years to his life," his doctor told Wright's wife, "if you could convince Frank to spend winters in the desert."

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Wright eventually agreed, and in 1937 he and his assistants started work on Taliesin West, a studio, home and a campus for instruction in architecture in the desert north of Scottsdale, Ariz.

His life extended by winters in Arizona, Wright lived out the promised twenty years and died at his compound in 1959 at the age of 91.

I toured Taliesin last week.

One quibble I have with the recent decades is the almost complete lack of imaginative and thoughtful architecture.

Most homes are dull, utilitarian boxes. The only question left for debate during construction is how big each boxy room will be, and maybe the color of the carpet.

Frank Lloyd Wright questioned every assumption in his designs, and got rid of most of them. It was Wright who started building homes on slab, eliminating first the basement and eventually the attic.

When he arrived with his students in Arizona, he looked at the piles of rock in the desert and found his building material. Wright's "students," young people who paid handsomely to study with the master, spent most of their time hauling immense rocks by hand to the building site.

The rocks were dumped in a wooden form, and the students, who lived in tents on the desert, poured concrete around them to hold them in place.

Wright loved the warm light inside the tent he lived in during construction, so he used canvas panels as the roofing material in many of the rooms.

He didn't like borders between indoors and out, so there was no glass in the windows for the first ten years, until Wright's wife convinced him of its utility in keeping out the elements.

Wright believed in big common spaces, a departure from the tight confines of 19th century parlors, and he knew how to force people to spend time together.

To that end, he cramped the entrances, bedrooms and bathrooms of homes he designed enough to make them uncomfortable, forcing people to join family, friends and guests in the living area, which inevitably featured a huge fireplace.

Because he was always strapped for money due to his taste for fine clothing and new red cars, Wright used cheap materials on his studio in Arizona.

Like almost all of Wright's homes, the roof leaks. The furniture, which Wright also designed, includes armchairs chairs which were fashioned out of a single 4 x 8 sheet of plywood.

What most amazed this visitor is the depth of thought Wright put into every element of his buildings, from the light, to the social implications of the design, to the acoustics, and most importantly to Wright, to creating harmony between the building and its natural surroundings.

The angles of the roofs on his desert compound reflect the angles of the nearby mountains. The complex blends with the Arizona desert just as his buildings out east might blend with a stand of oak, or a waterfall.

Like many creative geniuses, Frank Lloyd Wright was arrogant, egotistical, extravagant, unfaithful, demanding and peevish. But there isn't a day that goes by without each of us encountering an idea or concept, even in our own homes, that came from Wright.

When once called into court to testify, Wright was put on the witness stand and asked his occupation.

"I am Frank Lloyd Wright, the greatest architect in the world," he announced.

When he got home, his wife scolded him for his arrogance and asked him to stop referring to himself in such grandiose terms.

"But dear," he protested, "I was under oath!"

Over fifty years have passed since Wright's death. In that time, building materials, particularly windows, have improved markedly.

Building styles, however, have not.

One wonders when the next Frank Lloyd Wright will come along, a visionary who will used the latest in technology to develop spaces which enrich life as we live it today.

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Eric Bergeson

Eric Bergeson is the third generation owner of Bergeson Nursery in Fertile, Minn., a business started by his grandfather in 1937. He also writes a weekly column for several newspapers in northwestern Minnesota. He has published four books, including most recently Pirates on the Prairie, which the Minneapolis Tribune called "a Minnesota cultural and historical treasure." You can read more from Eric at his website, The Country Scribe

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