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Desert dwellings

Fabric Structures, Markets | June 1, 2011 | By:

Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision, architecture students create fabric dwellings at his Taliesin West campus.

Frank Lloyd Wright, visionary architect of the late 1800s and early 1900s, tested his radical design ideas on his personal projects before incorporating his design decisions into clients’ projects. This experimental approach is one of the founding principles of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. Encouraged and guided by instructors, students build small-scale dwellings to investigate building materials and design ideas at the Taliesin West campus near Scottsdale, Ariz.

Encouraged to find and use an array of building materials, students experiment with new and old building techniques, and incubate interesting design approaches—including the use of fabric in the building design of small-scale structures. Students are free to explore ideas about how to express and integrate the properties of fabric on a small scale.

A structure for testing theory

One of the most recent dwellings on the Taliesin West campus, called “Brittlebush,” is named after a common desert plant that shelters smaller plants, providing shade and protection from the harsh desert sun. The dwelling includes 3-inch steel angles thrusting out of the landscape at a slope of 15 degrees and turning multiple times at 90 degree angles, emulating a crystalline form that grew out of the desert landscape. The voids between the top of the steel structure and the earth are filled with rebar-reinforced, rammed earth to emulate the desert colors and contours. The structure is designed to support multiple types of fabric roofs and is continuously integrated with the walls, which makes the 200-square-foot space efficient.

Commercial 95™– Synthesis was chosen for the fabric roof because of its flexibility and ten-year UV warranty. A design requirement for the dwelling was low maintenance, given the minimal amount of 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 pattern adjustments was very important. The shade cloth was patterned onsite so that adjustments could be made, ensuring a quality product. The shade cloth can now serve as the pattern template for a durable canvas, vinyl or PTFE roof on the same structure.

A shaded, flexible, open pavilion, it can accommodate a party of 30 people for an intimate gathering of friends or small outdoor party; it also serves as a quiet retreat from the activities of the main campus and an overnight dwelling for those students that 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. Integrated into a barbecue area or poolside bar, the design with its contoured shading can provide longer hours of shade than conventional sails.

Embracing the use of fabric

Students have taken advantage of the natural canvas-like appeal of high performance fabrics. “Helixa” is a dwelling inspired by the simplicity and beauty of spiral forms. Its floor plan is in the shape of a spiral, with a cylindrical fireplace rising 10 feet out of the center.

Built from bags filled with earth, the walls undulate, emphasizing the curves of each course on the vertical profile. These bags are stacked and rammed together to create compact and durable walls. The exterior wall expanding outward is about 16 inches and provides a sitting space around and near the fire. Arching from the top of the fireplace to the lower exterior wall are lengths of rolled steel tubes serving as structural ribs for custom-tailored fabric awnings.

Designed and built by Maya Ward-Karet, this dwelling utilizes fabric in a more flowing manner, allowing for the fabric to take shape in the wind, similar to sails at sea. An air release system that directs higher winds to pass through gaps between the awnings is integrated into the design. The design suggests that awnings don’t have to solely remain above our heads but can be extended down to enclose space, providing privacy and shelter.

Another dwelling, “3 Desert Way,” is square at the base with four walls slanted outward. The interior space of the dwelling is much larger than on first impression. A highly customized wood frame with steel braces provides a sturdy structure for the tightly stretched fabric. Most of the walls and the entire roof are covered in fabric. The space is surprisingly private, with interior seat cushions upholstered with True Blue furniture fabric from Sunbrella®. Designed and built by Trevor Pan, this dwelling provides a completely fabric-enclosed space that could be used as a private studio or for small social gatherings. The fabric has aged well under the desert sun; the wood requires maintenance, but Pan continues to care for the dwelling several years after its creation.

Historic restoration decisions

From his first arrival in the Sonoran Desert in 1929, Frank Lloyd Wright used canvas as one of his essential building materials. “Ocatillo” was his first architecture camp in Chandler, Ariz., on what was then Dr. Alexander Chandler’s property. Canvas, due to its light weight and unique properties, was a manageable and readily available material to build his winter home. He simply built a shed roof frame and stretched canvas over the wood, providing an evenly illuminated space to draw and shed the water of the winter rains. However, repairs needed to be done yearly to keep the canvas roof attractive and performing well.

Wright later purchased property on the northeast side of Scottsdale, Ariz., at the foot of the McDowell Mountains. Here he established a winter residence for the rest of his life: Taliesin West. Commonly called “camp,” the Wright family and his apprentices worked and lived there for the winter months. Taliesin West appeared to be an elegant hybrid between the ancient Aztec pyramids, board and batten construction, and tents. Wright was seeking to define an architecture unique to the desert. Some apprentices lived in shepherds tents and others just slept out in the open or experimented with their own ideas, a tradition that is still followed today.

From 1932 to 1959, Taliesin West had four fabric roofs, designed by Wright and built by his apprentices, that were mainly canvas, but Wright was always testing new materials. A rubberized nylon resulting in water and dirt accumulation; another material, which was disproportionately strong in the warp direction and weak in the weft, easily tore and proved unacceptable as well.

Canvas proved superior in its performance throughout Wright’s life for the function of the camp. Later, as Taliesin West became occupied year-round, with the need for an air-conditioned environment, plexi-glass and fiberglass materials replaced canvas. The current precedents for historic restoration and preservation imply that fabric roofs would be more representative of the historic context as the replacement material. However, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation juggles the challenges of maintaining a historic landmark and meeting the facility’s needs for an energy-efficient, air-conditioned space that properly sheds water—maintaining the current historic wood and steel structure with a fabric roof.

Frank Lloyd Wright sometimes asked materials to perform beyond their capability with the insight that continuing advancements in technology could help resolve problems. He was not afraid to test his ideas, and neither are the current students. One of the responsibilities of an architect is to keep informed about advances in materials—including specialty fabrics. The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture provides the educational culture and supportive environment for hands-on testing and creative experimentation.

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

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