Smart design: Taliesin West, Acrosanti

This spring is full of reminders that architectural wonders carry a price. Innovation means risk of ridicule. Success, over the long haul, requires perseverance as well as preservation.

The major league baseball season opens next week. Almost all the leaks from that funky and retractable roof at Miller Park, from what I’ve read, have been fixed. So play ball!

The roof is safe, and it will close when necessary. That’s not the same as a ceremonial closing at the end of every home game. This structure is just four years old, but there will be multi-million dollar roof repairs during the next two years (on top of those that already have occurred).

The question of who is responsible for the mechanical shortcomings was settled out of court a couple of months ago. But head west, and a different struggle with public architecture has come to a boil.

Financial, management and political woes may be putting the Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin properties at an elevated risk, both in Spring Green and in Scottsdale, Ariz. Both have National Historic Landmark status, and the need for major repair work has been public knowledge for years.

There have been leaky roofs here, too, but that is just the tip of it. Now a mediator has been hired to work with the Wright foundation and its fellowship (those who live and work at Taliesin). They are at odds about how to save and present the architect’s masterpieces, a project whose estimated cost is $100 million.

Foundation Vice President Beverly Hart compares the situation to a family who lives from paycheck to paycheck.

The Guy and I visited Taliesin West this spring, days after the Arizona Republic’s report on the foundation’s massive challenges. “We are an organization in chaos,” Hart told the newspaper.

The average visitor certainly doesn’t see or hear much this, while touring the site, but not everything is accessible for inspection. On a hill overlooking the city, this Taliesin was the winter work site for Wright, who died in 1959. Architectural apprentices have a similar migration; after Easter they move from Scottsdale to the Wisconsin Taliesin, for new scenery and summer studies.

Before Taliesin West was built, Wright – a big believer in having his work mesh with nature – camped on its grounds for two years, while designing the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. It was a way to better understand, appreciate and harmonize his surroundings with his work.

Apprentices learn the same principles; they must sleep in a tent at Taliesin West for six months during their first year of study. Then they build their own home on the 600-acre grounds. Although many of the structures are demolished upon their graduation, others still stand.

The future of the Taliesins as a working architectural school (the maximum number of students is 28) is questionable. One option is to keep the two properties open as just historical sites and museums.

For more, go to www.franklloydwright.org; there are several types of tours at each Taliesin. Or call (877) 588-7900 for Spring Green info, (480) 860-8810 for Scottsdale info.

On my desk is a photo of two architects chatting, during a recent spring gathering near Taliesin West. One is Frank Lloyd Wright’s grandson. The other is Paolo Soleri, one of Wright’s students and the developer of Arcosanti.

Arcosanti? I found the photo online, while trying to decide how to align all these architectural topics in my head.

Soleri is trying to make his mark, too, an hour north of Taliesin West. About two miles on a rutted dirt road, off Interstate-17, is 4,000 acres of desert that contains this architect’s vision for the future.

“Arcology” is what Soleri calls his work to produce a compact urban habitat whose architecture blends with ecology. The sustainable community that is being built here is to house 5,000 people on 25 acres. Solar greenhouses will provide food as well as energy.

“The American Dream physically embodied in the single family house has to be scrapped and reinvented in terms which are coherent with the human and biospheric reality,” Soleri says. To continue living as we have would require 19 more planet Earths by 2050, he contends.

A watercolorist from Montreal, one of a dozen residents at Arcosanti now, told us her private living area is about 8 square feet. That’s enough for a bed, a desk and a chair.

It’s no big deal, she said. Community kitchens and sitting areas are spacious and full of windows/light.

Residents sell their art and jewelry in a small gallery. A café and bakery are open to the public. A gift shop specializes in bronze and ceramic wind chimes and bells, made on the premises. A few rooms are rented to travelers.

Hiking on nearby trails is free but tours are $8. There are internships and workshops, many of which involve hands-on work at Arcosanti.

It is a grandiose experiment, the kind that can make or break a reputation. Construction progress seems slow; the work began in the 1970s.

Will Soleri be known for his folly or fortitude? “As urban architecture, Arcosanti is probably the most important experiment undertaken in our lifetime,” Newsweek concluded. But that was in 1976, when the project was fresh and perhaps holding more momentum.

For more about Arcosanti, go to www.arcosanti.org or call (602) 254-5309.