For a new architect, building your first house is almost guaranteed to test your skills. But at Scottsdale's Taliesin West, that test is also a final exam.
When architect Frank Lloyd Wright established Taliesin West at the foot of the McDowell Mountains in 1937, he envisioned it not only as his winter home and studio, but also as a place where he and his apprentices could experiment with new ideas and materials.
Their creativity was partly driven by necessity, since the group was far from town and had little funding. Most of the young architects lived in canvas tents while they raised walls and mixed concrete for the permanent structures.
Over the decades, the architectural school that Wright established — now known as the School of Architecture at Taliesin — has kept that tradition alive by requiring students to design and build their own sleeping shelters somewhere on the desert property.
With no utilities available, students merely sleep in the shelters, with locker rooms and meals provided in the main buildings. And they are not used year-round, since the school also follows Wright's tradition of spending summers at Taliesin, in Wisconsin. Still, the structures remain an important part of the curriculum and the chance to build them is a draw for many aspiring architects.
One of those architects, Jaime Inostroza, has just completed the newest desert shelter.
When Inostroza arrived at Taliesin West in 2014, he had already earned an architectural degree in his native Chile. But he had long admired Wright's work and was intrigued by the idea of building his own shelter. He knew it would force him into a hands-on understanding of materials and techniques, shifting his skills from theory to practice.
"This place is like a laboratory for architecture," he explained. "You can test things here, and learn how things fit together and how materials really work."
For the first three years of his studies, however, Inostroza stuck mostly to theory. While some students opt to camp in an existing shelter while building their own, Inostroza lived in one of Taliesin's on-site apartments with his wife and young son.
However, in January 2017, he started work on the project that had drawn him to Taliesin in the first place.
The first decision was where to build. Inostroza searched the property before settling on a location, but a fellow student urged him to reconsider.
“He said, ‘Jaime, you’re stupid. I have a beautiful site for you,’” Inostroza remembered. “So he led me up the wash, and when I saw it, I knew it was the right site.”
A row of desert trees lined the wash in a way that reminded Inostroza of an alameda, or walkway. In a gap between a palo verde and an ironwood, he could see an old concrete pad where a long-ago apprentice must have erected a tent, and where he immediately decided he would build his own shelter.
He drew up several designs, of which the third was the best. It was also the simplest, which Inostroza counts as one of many lessons he's taken from Wright's work.
"I've learned to always be asking: What is the essence? What is here?" he said. "You don't want to impose yourself on the site, you want to exalt what is already there."
To Inostroza, the essence of his site comprised three things: the alameda of trees, the views of the nearby McDowell Mountains, and the historical foundation.
In response, he designed an elevated sleeping platform above a shaded seating area. He expanded the original foundation by adding stone and concrete steps up to to the loft, which is framed in wood, roofed in clear corrugated polycarbonate, and enclosed with panels made of white outdoor fabric that catch and diffuse light.
At 12 feet, the shelter is the same height as the neighboring trees, preserving the visual line, and inspiring Inostroza to name it "Atalaya," from the Spanish for "crow's nest."
Throughout the project, he applied Wright's principles of sustainable design. He incorporated nearby stones into the walls, and planned for cross-ventilation both in the lower seating area — where cool air enters from the wash, and in the sleeping area — where a 5-inch gap between the walls and the roof permits a breeze.
Remembering Wright's admonition that architecture should direct people toward nature, he faced the seating benches toward the mountains.
Referencing Wright's love of pattern, Inostroza spaced narrow strips of wood across the top of the structure to add shade and create a play of shadows on the ground.
And, like Wright's original apprentices, he did it on the cheap, with only a $2,000 allowance granted by the school.
Such a tight budget forced Inostroza to be thoughtful in his design.
"When you have those constraints, all the decisions you make are important," he said. "I thought through every single inch. "
His largest expense was the lumber, for which he selected western red-cedar because it ages well and can last for up to 25 years.
“I could have used pine,” he acknowledged, “but it wouldn’t be as beautiful.”
In addition to the financial limits, Inostroza faced other challenges. He had only a small generator to power tools; he had to carry all his supplies — including 70 bags of concrete — the quarter-mile from the parking lot; and he had to do all the work himself, except when he could persuade other students to help.
"That is actually an important lesson," Inostroza said. "You're not just the architect; you're also the construction manager, the engineer, the carpenter, the landscape designer, the supervisor, the accountant, everything. It's a whole experience."
But it was worth it. In mid-April, after six months of planning and three months, two weeks, and three days of construction, Inostroza was able to sleep in a building he had designed.
From the upper platform, he gazed out over the desert. At sunset, the fabric panels lit up in purples and pinks. And late at night, the moonlight glowed through the ceiling.
The effect, he said, "is like being in a tiny cloud."
After all that, Inostroza will only be able to enjoy his tiny cloud for a few more weeks. An architectural firm in San Francisco has already offered him a position — partly due to their enthusiasm for Atalaya.
However, the shelter isn't just a line on a resume. For Inostroza, it's his first mark in architectural history.
"I'm the first person from Chile building at Taliesin, in the tradition of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Fellowship," he said. "Can you imagine? And I'll have that until my tomb."
He will also, he said, have the invaluable lessons he learned by building the shelter.
"This is not a house," he acknowledged. "But from these principles, I can build a house. I can build a library. I can build anything."
Taliesin West is located at 12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd. in Scottsdale. The site, managed by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, offers daily tours of the main buildings as well as occasional tours of student-designed shelters. Visit www.franklloydwright.org for more information.
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