News and updates from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

Rebuilding Desert Masonry

Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation | Mar 16, 2017

“The [Arizona] desert with its rim of arid mountains spotted like the leopard’s skin or tattooed with amazing patterns of creation, is a grand garden the like of which in sheer beauty of reach, space, and pattern does not exist, I think, in the world.” – Frank Lloyd Wright, 1950

When Frank Lloyd Wright and his Taliesin Fellowship began constructing Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, they sourced materials from the surrounding area to make it feel as if the buildings were an extension of the desert floor. The concrete and stone mixture – used to build the structures of Taliesin West – is known as desert masonry. Today, the preservation team at Taliesin West is tasked with maintaining the property as a living incubator for Wright’s ideas, while preserving the historic character of the National Historic Landmark.

Recently, they set out to reconstruct desert masonry columns that support the Taliesin West workshop roof. One of the original columns was removed and replaced with a wooden post, sometime in the past.  The other was failing and could not be repaired. The reconstructed columns were augmented with a steel post for structural stability. To begin the process, the team created rectangular wooden forms for the columns.

The shape of the column is formed with wood.
The team mixes the concrete.

The wooden forms were then filled with a concrete mixture, a very dry mix of Portland cement and coarse sand. The dry concrete mix is meant to represent the sandy desert floor.

Water is poured into the concrete as it mixes.
The concrete is a mixture of ____ and ___. A drier mixture that will be the most stable.

Then large, flat stones, collected from the surrounding Sonoran Desert, were placed inside the forms, to be exposed on the outside face of the columns.  The stones are meant to represent the stones found scattered across the desert floor.

Large, flat stones are laid out before being placed within the concrete.
More stones are placed in the column.
More concrete is placed in the structure, completing the first level. There will be three levels.
The first level of the column is completed.
The second level of the column is filled.

After 24 hours, the team removed the wooden forms and the rectangular columns of desert masonry were revealed.

The cured column is revealed.
The team removes the beams one side at a time.
The team admires their work on one of the finished columns.

As a final step, the team collected silt from surrounding washes, mixed the silt with water, and applied it on the finished columns. The brown mixture is absorbed into the curing concrete, tempering the grey concrete, to achieve the ideal color.

The silt is painted on the columns to add color.

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