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Shading at Taliesin West

Exteriors | November 1, 2010 | By:

Updating a landmark building in the Southwest desert

In 1989, Charles William (Bill) Moss visited Taliesin West (Frank Lloyd Wright’s well-known winter campus near Scottsdale, Ariz.) at the base of the McDowell Mountains in Arizona. Frank Lloyd Wright, in his first days in the Sonoran Desert, explored large daylit rooms made of canvas, first at Ocatillo in Chandler, Ariz., and then settled in at Taliesin West in the 1930s. Fabric has been an essential historic material at Taliesin West. When Bill Moss visited Taliesin West in the winters of 1989 and 1990 he fired up the imaginations of the resident architects and apprentices, challenging them to find better ways of designing and detailing tensile fabric structures.

One of these Moss-led challenges included a design-build competition for a shadecloth installation over the William Wesley Peters Library courtyard where students of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture read books, periodicals and have access to the Taliesin Architect Archives. Since 1932, young architects have come to learn the principles of design from Wright. Although Wright died in 1959, the school continues to pass along these principles as an NAAB-accredited school. A talented apprentice named Mick Granlund won the library competition in 1990. He worked hard in the summer to complete his design using techniques learned from Moss to create a simple, repeating pattern of “sails” that beautifully unified the structures surrounding the library courtyard.

Granlund used a light grade shadecloth made of a knitted polypropylene. He sewed webbing with a UV-protected thread along the fabric edges to transfer the tension along the periphery of each sail. Webbing is similar to seat belt strapping; it is a polymer-based woven strap with a high resistance to tearing. Granlund made webbing loops at each corner of the three-pointed sails that pulled each sail tight and brought them into the desired shape. The only hardware used was a one-eighth inch diameter cable to pull each loop. With the cable pulling on the loops barely visible, and the black webbing providing a distinct visual border, the identical sails appeared to be floating above the courtyard. The installation was completed in 1990.

Seventeen years later, I entered the school as an M.Arch candidate inspired and fascinated by Frank Lloyd Wright and by this installation in particular. I later learned about Moss and began to seek out the knowledge and people to help me understand the principles involved in fabric design. The more I studied the Granlund installation, the more I noticed that Arizona weather and sunlight damaged the materials. The thread dissolved and the old shadecloth cracked at the slightest touch. The materials required replacement if the installation was to remain.

While attending IFAI’s Expo 2009, I met Nathaniel Allen, one of the principals, with Matthew Dickerson, of Tenshon, a shadecloth sail fabricator in the Phoenix metro area. They were very interested in working with Taliesin. Allen and Dickerson wanted to help students understand current materials and methods used with shade sails and tension structures. The school administration approved the design team for this project consisting of Allen, Dickerson and me. We selected the William Wesley Peters Library as a good starting point to re-evaluate and rekindle the spark that Moss brought to Taliesin West 20 years ago.

After analyzing the existing installation, we decided to use a new method of tensioning to strengthen the anchor points and upgrade the hardware to resist the heavy Arizona winds. Eliminating the webbing on most of the sails and replacing it with cables, as well as replacing the original loops with D-rings, helped to better resist the tearing forces at the corners, the weakest points on the sails. Taliesin students cut the fabric so a continuous sewn pocket could hold a cable running the periphery of each sail. When tensioned, these cables distribute the forces continuously across the entire fabric. With the black webbing outline removed, the installation blends into the colors of the desert and appears to be stronger and more stable. We used a commercial grade shadecloth provided by Gale Pacific and a marine grade thread called Tenara® for sewing; all the hardware is stainless steel.

Students participated in various parts of the project by measuring, cutting, sewing, welding and painting the steel supports. Tenshon provided the essential guiding force to ensure that the project would enhance learning in the environment created. This project is an excellent example of how professionals and a school can partner to enhance opportunities by teaching current manufacturing methods in an experimental environment.

Simón Andreas De Agüero is a recent graduate of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.

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