Ask your average person the name of a famous architect and you’ll probably receive the same answer time and time again — Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright, whose career spanned seven decades, is, in fact, so revered that he was named the “greatest American architect of all time” by the American Institute of Architects.
Considering how Wright’s aesthetic is so closely associated with the use of natural materials (a style he deemed “organic architecture”), his life-long advocacy for the use of technology in his field may seem counterintuitive or surprising. “He was an innovator,” says Jeff Goodman, vice president of communication and partnerships at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, “he was constantly experimenting with new technologies and new materials.” With so much emphasis placed on modernism in the current design world, Goodman points out that we often forget how radical Wright’s work was in his era. Just one example of this, Goodman notes, would be the open concept floor plan—“when Wright exploded the box of what a house used to be, people thought it was crazy. But, now, it makes so much sense and has changed our lives for the better.”
Wright’s spirit of innovation though, is certainly still alive and well in the technology being used in the preservation of his house, Taliesin West. Located in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale, Arizona, Wright bought the property in 1937 and visited it frequently until his death in 1959. Taliesin West served as Wright’s winter residence from his home in Wisconsin, the original Taliesin, and he would often invite students to travel there with him to study and work. Today, that legacy of education lives on at Taliesin West—the property serves as the winter campus of the School of Architecture at Taliesin and houses the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The place where he designed many of his most famous buildings, such as New York City’s Guggenheim Museum, Taliesin West is one of the nine Wright properties that have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Goodman describes how Wright used Taliesin West as “a desert laboratory to experiment and try new things.” In that vein, the Foundation’s partnership with tech companies Lecia Geosystems and Multivista has allowed some new resources to be added to the “lab.” The world’s smallest 3D-imaging scanner, the Lecia BLK360, has been used to capture 360-degree spherical imagery of Taliesin West. The information that was gathered was then used by the Foundation to create an immersive virtual tour of the property, which is hosted on their website. Goodman says they undertook this project in an effort to “make the site more accessible to the public, as we know that not everyone will be able to come to Scottsdale in their lifetime.” While Goodman does note the virtual tour is not the same as actually visiting Taliesin West in person, he points out that, for those without the opportunity to do so, “it is a pretty good alternative.”
In addition to the advances it has created for public accessibility, the new technology at Taliesin West has been an important component in the home’s preservation. “When Wright built Taliesin and Taliesin West, he didn’t have to do drawings like he would have to for sites he was creating for clients as these were his spaces,” Goodman explains. As a result, not only were the original plans for Taliesin West never fully documented but, as well, Wright’s constant changes to the property’s design were somewhat mysteries themselves—“when making changes, he would just wave his cane and say ‘let’s build a wall here’ or ‘let’s do this,’” Goodman describes. Therefore, the data which resulted from scans done by Lecia Geosystems and Multivista was not just important, but crucial. This information lives in the form of a point cloud, a dimensionally accurate laser reproduction of the property, which can be uploaded into a design software to better determine what renovations and repairs Taliesin West requires. “You can go into the scans in the Multivista software and if you need to know how big a room is, or any kind of measurement at all, you just click,” says Goodman. “It tells you exactly—you can see the volume and length. So it saves a lot of time and, even, money—there is no need to hire structural engineers to come in and figure out things which the scans are already showing.”
Perhaps though, the most important benefit this technology bestows is the infinite lifetime it creates for the property. Goodman points out that, “for the first time ever we have documentation down to the tiniest detail of what Taliesin West is.” Citing the devastation caused by fire to Notre Dame earlier this year, he relates how, “if there’s some kind of a disaster and we’re to lose this historic site we have made sure it is fully documented—it’s an incredible gift to have.” While Wright may have only been able to dream of the kind of design technology available today, his foundation is certainly making sure his pioneering ideas continue to influence the architects of this era and beyond. As Goodman concludes, “there’s so much to gain from experiencing his work, ideas, and principles. If we can use technology to share those ideas with more people around the world, we give them the opportunity to be inspired.”