Frank Lloyd Wright's Iconic Winter Home in Arizona Is Now Open for (Virtual) Tours

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Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West in Arizona
Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West in Arizona. (Photo: Adam Lechowicz/flickr)

The city of Scottsdale, Arizona, is best known as a hotbed of well-heeled leisure pursuits — a place where upscale spa resorts and immaculately coiffed golf courses dominate the surprisingly lush landscape of the northern Sonoran Desert. (Also, somewhat inexplicably, there's a very large aquarium.)

Phoenix-neighboring Scottsdale is also a bona fide destination for architecture lovers due to the presence of Taliesin West, the late-career studio and snowbird retreat of pioneering 20th century American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. A trip to the Valley of the Sun, however, is no longer required to tour the fabled 620-acre desert property thanks to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which is headquartered at Taliesin West, and Swiss digital surveying firm Leica Geosystems.

Using an advanced 3D imaging laser scanner, the foundation and Leica have developed an immersive virtual walk-through tour of Taliesin West that's tailored to armchair tourists and anyone who might have future travel plans to Scottsdale but are hankering for a sneak peek before experiencing the real deal. (More than 100,000 annual visitors make the pilgrimage to Taliesin West.)

"True to our mission, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation is dedicated to preserving Taliesin and Taliesin West for future generations. Through our partnership with Leica Geosystems, we're able to carry out our mission, and Wright's vision into the future, by making Taliesin West available to the world so it can experience his ideas, architecture and design in new ways," says Stuart Graff, president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, in a press release.

Per the foundation, there are plans to generate digital self-guided tours of additional iconic Wright-designed buildings through the partnership, dubbed the Frank Lloyd Wright 3D Laboratory or simply 3D Lab.

Next up for scanning will be Taliesin, Wright's thrice-rebuilt primary studio and summer home in rural Sauk County, Wisconsin. Taliesin and Taliesin West — both listed as National Historic Landmarks — also serve as dual campuses for the Taliesin School of Architecture (formerly the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture), a graduate program for apprentice architects dating back to 1932.

Self-guided tours for everyone

Describing Taliesin and Taliesin West as "unfinished works" when compared to "complete" iconic Wright designs that were originally commissioned by private clients, Graff elaborates in a promotional video (embedded below) as to why immersive virtual tours are so crucial at these two particular properties, particularly when it comes to accessibility ... or the lack thereof:

"Despite the over 110,000 visitors that come here to Taliesin West every year, there are many more people that would like to come but don't get the chance whether that's because of distance, because of accessibility challenges or because a desert camp, which Taliesin West was formed to be, is not the most friendly for mobility challenged members of our public." He adds: "All of these buildings were built as experimental buildings. They were constructed over time, sometimes without even plans."

Translation: Taliesin and Taliesin West aren't the most accessible places for everyone.

Open year-round and offering a variety of ticketed tours that range from 90 minutes to three hours long, Taliesin West is inherently hobbled by accessibility issues. The sprawling property is terraced into the foothills of the McDowell Mountains with few considerations made for modern day accessibility standards. The foundation does make this clear to potential visitors, noting that while there are some narrow ramps, the complex is largely dominated by gravel walkways, stairs and uneven surfaces.

Exterior of Taliesin West
Spread across over 600 acres, Taliesin West features lush desert gardens and sculptures designed by Wright himself in addition its main studio and residential buildings. (Photo: David Silverman/flickr)

The push to preserve an 'extremely complicated building'

While providing highly detailed virtual tours of Taliesin West that "allow visitors to roam from room-to-room, walk the gardens, and zoom in on the expansive collection of sculptures that adorn the property," is certainly a huge deal, the preservation-aiding aspect of the 3D Lab initiative cannot be underestimated.

The foundation provides more detail into the technology at play:

The Leica BLK360 was used to capture the property. It is the world's smallest, fastest and most simple to use 3D imaging laser scanner. The BLK360 provides the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation with data in two ways. The first is the 360o spherical imagery that feeds the visual immersive experience. The second comes in the form of a point cloud, a dimensionally accurate laser reproduction of the property that can be used for the Foundation's preservation efforts. The point cloud can even be loaded in popular CAD and BIM software for highly accurate renovations and careful design changes should the need arise.

As mentioned by Graff, Wright and his students constructed Taliesin West in somewhat of an ad-hoc manner using desert rocks and other natural, locally sourced materials — additions were made and alterations were executed often without the benefit of proper blueprints.

As such, the compound, which dates back to 1937 and is where Wright designed some of his most famous creations such as Manhattan's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, can be viewed as a perpetual work-in-progress. And while this all makes for a fascinating and enigmatic work of architecture, it presents a challenge to preservationists 80-some years later.

"Taliesin West is an extremely complicated building," Fred Prozzillo, the foundation's vice president of preservation, recently explained to Quartz. "Everything is handmade, everything is custom, everything is designed with the environment."

The high-accuracy digital models captured through the 3D Lab project make the job of Prozzillo and his colleagues much easier.

Taliesin West living room
A view of Taliesin West's living quarters, which, along with the entire historic Arizona compound, are now open for virtual tours via the Frank Lloyd Wright 3D Lab. (Photo: InSapphoWeTrust/flickr)

"It's one of the most important architectural sites in the U.S., if not the world," elaborates Prozzillo in the promo video. "We really need accurate drawings and data to be able to understand the building and then make correct decisions on how to preserve and care for it."

While no doubt impressive, one does wonder if the obsessive and notoriously ill-tempered "godfather of organic architecture" would have embraced emerging technology like 3D architectural scanning and virtual reality. Graff thinks he would.

"Experimentation, innovation is at the heart of Frank Lloyd Wright's 70-year career," he tells Quartz. "What's possible is the credo his work."

Cutting-edge tech has been used to preserve and restore other Wright-designed structures including the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel (1941), a concrete "textile block" structure on the campus of Florida Southern College — home to the world's largest single-site collection of Wright buildings — that was recently restored with the aid of 3D printing technology.

Graff also notes that the legacy of Wright, who died in 1959 at the age of 91 following a prolific and often scandal-plagued career, is now more important than ever as contemporary architects strive to leave the lightest ecological footprint possible with their own designs. "More than an architect of buildings, Wright was an architect of ideas whose time has come now with great urgency as we face great challenges to sustainability," he says.