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Frank Lloyd Wright on Desert Life

Frank Lloyd Wright | Aug 23, 2017

On November 29, 1952, Frank Lloyd Wright — during one of his cherished Sunday morning talks  — spoke to apprentices on the wonders of desert living and the importance of embracing the surrounding beauty. The talk was published by Cornelia Brierly in “Desert Life: Desert Foliage at Taliesin West.”

A characteristic thing in the desert here is, of course, the desert itself. And I have always regarded it as the greatest lesson in construction. Form following function if you like — or form and function being one — that exists. The saguaro is the greatest example of a skyscraper that was ever built. I don’t think we have ever built one similarly — on the same principle. We could.

Then these chollas, this beautiful blonde of the desert that is as wicked as anything that ever existed. It has little fish hooks for foliage that get you if you don’t watch out. They call it the jumping cholla, because as you pass by, if there is a little wind or something, one of those marvelous little hedgehogs will detach itself and bounce at you. And it takes but the slightest touch. That is what surprises me. The slightest touch and it will hook. Did anyone ever see one under a microscope – those barbs? I never have. I would like to see how it is fashioned so that it will hook in with the slightest touch.

Apprentice: It is like the old fishing spear, Mr. Wright. The barbs are in reverse, and are all around it.

There must be a little spear point.

Apprentice: Yes, and the barbs are in reverse so that when you pull the thing out you are pushing against it.

Yes, I know that, that far I got. But I don’t see, still, how it can penetrate so readily and push the barb in with such a slight contact. Well, that is only one of the things, of course, that is annoying. But there are many miracles here.

I can remember the ridiculous effect of the saguaro with the little chaplet of white flowers on the top of it — on the peak. They look as though some member of the Wiener Werkstatt had decorated it for fun. It was really very entertaining. It seems a most most inappropriate way to bloom for a big thing like that, you know. This one, when we came here, was about half as tall as it is now, I would judge. It was quite an insignificant thing. Look at it now. And it has had a family too.

But of course, the terrain itself — you must remember that this is the youngest landscape probably in the United States. California is old, almost worn smooth. The curves are like those of the bald-headed man, but here, everything is fresh, original edges pretty much preserved, erosion still going on at a terrific rate making chasms. It is extraordinarily picturesque, probably beyond anything in the world. I think probably newer than anything, and nearer to the original catastrophe than anything I know.

So you have all that picturesque thing in the ground work. Then it has produced all this marvelous growth which is all armed. There isn’t a thing in the desert that isn’t armed to the — not to the teeth exactly – but, to the top and at the top. Everywhere you go you get prodded, stuck, cut, tom or something other if you interfere with any of it. So the best thing to do is to give it a wide berth. Just look at it, and admire it because it does achieve a beautiful synthesis of form appropriate to its purpose.

And what is its purpose?

The reproduction of its species under untoward conditions come hell or high water, isn’t that it? And to that end, it puts out the most beautiful, exotic, elaborate bloom, which we won’t see much of, probably, because we leave too early.

A cactus bloom is beyond any bloom, I think, manufactured by plants anywhere in the world. And there you have an interesting syllogism, haven’t you? The desperate nature of the armed plant and the exquisite, beautiful efflorescence it produces. Something to think about. There you see, revealed, some processes of nature, the significance of which I don’t gather at the moment.

But all these things are worth studying, worth attention and your leisure hours, if you can find any. (It will be in spite of us.) You can go out and take walks and study and climb on these hilltops, become mountain climbers, if you have got the right kind of shoes, and really have fun. You should always have fun that is characteristic of the region you are in, either east or west or north or south. It has irked me to see boys when they get time off, going down to town, going to the movies, going to the restaurant for a cup of coffee and all that kind of thing.

Why, when you are in a richness of this sort, do you have to conduct yourself in such, well what shall we say, commonplace, such a punk manner? Because here you can live a life rare, independent, unusual with a new experience every moment, wherever you go.

Now, if you take advantage of that when you are here, why you will cash in on something that will stay with you all your lives. And of course, we are all interested in form, in design. And if you really are interested in design, you will see it in everything you look at. You will see an element and principle of design that really is harmonious, that is significant, that has individuality, that has this quality we call style, which is the search, always, of an Architect.

The great benefit to you all in being here, in these circumstances, is to just get into it and learn, understand, appreciate what you see around you. And it is only the seeing eye that is ever going to produce. You are never going to get out of yourselves anything more than you are, than you can take in, than you can see as yourselves. Otherwise you will just be copycats, and turning things over and over that have been seen by other people and not by you.

So here you have a chance to see things, to learn the art of seeing, which is, of course, another form of being, isn’t it? You can’t see anymore than you are. You can’t see in any way other than the way you are, either. But you can cultivate that. You can grow in it by exercising it little by little. And when it is achieved, it is the most remarkable, wonderful resource in the world. You are independent of everybody and everything, no matter what circumstances are. You are an independent being in your own right.