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Taliesin West: a materials laboratory in the Sonoran Desert

Exteriors, Features | November 1, 2011 | By:

Frank Lloyd Wright, visionary architect of the late 1800s and mid 1900s, tested his radical design ideas on his personal projects before subjecting his clients to his design decisions. This experimental approach is one of the founding principles of Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture (FLWSA). Encouraged and guided by instructors, students at the school build small-scale dwellings to investigate building materials and design ideas.

For his dwelling contribution to the FLWSA Arizona campus known as Taliesin West,* Simón De Agüero, a recent graduate of the school, used fabric in the building and design of a small-scale structure called “Brittlebush.” Most often, the commercial use of fabric recalls awnings, tents and sun shades. Brittlebush, however, explores a different idea of how to express and integrate the properties of fabric on a small scale.

One of the most recent dwellings on the Taliesin West campus, Brittlebush is named after a common desert plant that shelters smaller plants and provides shade and protection from the harsh desert sun. De Agüero’s dwelling includes a 91cm steel angle thrusting out of the landscape at a slope of 15 degrees and turning multiple times at 90-degree corners and emulates a crystalline form that grew out of the landscape. The voids between the top of the steel structure and the earth are filled with a rebar-re-inforced rammed earth to envelop the space. The structure is designed to support multiple types of fabric, is continuously integrated into the walls and makes up an 18m2 space.

The fabric roof is made of Commercial 95™ shade cloth produced by Synthesis. This fabric was chosen because of its flexible nature and its 10-year UV warranty. It was designed to be low maintenance due to the minimal attention the dwelling receives throughout the year. Developing the pattern for the fabric roof was an experimental process and the use of a flexible fabric that would respond well to patterning mistakes was important. The shade cloth was patterned on-site so adjustments could be made to ensure a quality product. The shade cloth can now serve as the pattern template for any future durable canvas, vinyl or PTFE roof on the same structure.

The space is shaded, flexible, open and can accommodate up to 30 people for an intimate gathering of friends or outdoor cocktail party. It is an open pavilion and a quiet retreat from the activities of the main campus as well as an overnight dwelling for students who want to be close to nature. Designed and built by Simón De Agüero, the scale and use of Brittlebush suggests a new type of residential application that could be integrated into a barbecue area or poolside bar to provide longer hours of shade than conventional style sail shades.

*Wright’s school and studio has two campuses: the original Taliesin located in Spring Green, Wis., and Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Ariz., near Phoenix.

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