Stalin's Arizona connection

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It looks like any other stretch of desert around Phoenix, but out here among the tumbling tumbleweed and Prickly Pear cactus sits an island of creativity, genius and some obscure historical connections. Among those linkages is a member of the family of former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

Where are we? It’s called Taliesin West, the Scottsdale, Arizona, home of Frank Lloyd Wright, self-described as America’s greatest architect. We’re also in McCain country and before that it was Barry Goldwater territory. This is the land of ultra-conservative politics, right-to-bear-arms advocates, uncountable Silverados and tailgate BBQs where the chili will get you if the sun doesn’t.

We’re also visiting a Canadian snowbird haven where Canucks drive their trucks and vans thousands of kilometers to bask in the scorching heat from December to April. It’s a golfer’s heaven and a motorist’s hell, too. Some sections of the intricate weave of highways surrounding Phoenix can resemble a massive aboveground network a la the giant sandworm tunnels depicted in the science fiction novel Dune.

But out here at Taliesin West among the rocks, shrubs and cactus flowers, Wright sought an escape from all that. He wanted the peace and serenity that he needed to feed his mind with images that would lead to some of the most unique design ideas in American architecture.

Back in 1911 when Wright first designed the house on land settled by his Welsh ancestors, it was far enough away from the boomtown city in the sand to allow the genius to muse about his designs. And he had them for virtually everything from pot lighting to stainless bathrooms in the rambling 500-acre patch of angular buildings, kumquat trees and oriental statuary. Taliesin is a Welsh word meaning ‘shining brow.’

Wright was constantly sketching, a knife at the ready to sharpen his pencil to the desired size as he strolled about the vast property north of the city in search of ways to live in harmony with the nature around him. He rarely missed a chance to blend in those surroundings right down to the chairs, tables and failed canvas roofs that continue to plague the foundation that keeps Taliesin West going for future architectural geniuses.

For about $30,000 a year, they can study here in a kind of baptism by sand and rock. About $2,000 goes to build a humble abode where they will live and learn from nature, as Wright did. The instructors at the FLW School of Architecture live in rooms above the modest dining area in the complex. Some served under the esteemed creator of so many American landmarks, about 500 in all, including the famous and controversial Guggenheim museum in New York City and his Pennsylvania masterpiece Fallingwater.

Although it’s slowing with the current recession, new housing is creeping nearer by the day and Wright, who died in 1959 at 91, would not have liked it one bit. When the city wanted to install high-tension electrical wires to mar Wright’s horizon of vision, he fought the invasion of metallic skeletons and wires. When he lost that battle and succumbed to the ugly metal giants that shape the cityscape as much as its multi-layered freeways, Wright moved his main bedroom and office so that he wouldn’t have to look at the monstrosities.

It’s still a natural setting that preserves Wright’s notions about design as an organic process. But it’s no longer the perfect setting for those who are bothered by the wires and the odd house roof poking out of the tall Suagro cactuses and high desert grass.

Wright was a perfectionist. That was part of his genius, too, and when you take the popular tours of the facility, you see it everywhere along with signs of his stubbornness, eccentricity and hatred of the city, all traits that marked the career of a man who built buildings to last a century.

Of course, Wright and his former colleague Paolo Soleri, another visionary who settled in the region, weren’t the first architects to learn from their natural surroundings. Anasazi, Peublo and Hopi designs were developed to build First Nations villages centuries ago. Some of those influences can be seen at Taliesin West and Soleri’s Arcosanti project further north.

There is tragedy in the Taliesin history as well. A mistress, Mamah Borthwick, for whom Wright is said to have designed the original Taliesin in Wisconsin, perished along with her children and several staff members when an arsonist set fire to the property in 1914. The Wisconsin house, said to be perched on the brow of a hill may have inspired the choice of the Welsh word 'taliesin' meaning shining or radiant brow.

Wright married, remarried and divorced twice, then met and married Olga ("Olgivanna") Ivanovna, a Russian dancer and writer. About 32 years his junior, she quickly reorganized Taliesin and Wright’s somewhat distracted mind. A genius he was, but he was the type of man who might buy a piano – he had 18 of them – when a bed or other practical purchase might have been the wiser choice.

Then tragedy struck a second time. Wes Peters, Wright’s assistant and an architect who worked on Fallingwater, fell in love with Olgivanna’s daughter Svetlana, Wright’s step-daughter. Eleven years later, she and one of two sons died in a car accident.

After a period of mourning, Olgivanna became concerned about the young man having no life partner. She used her matchmaking talents to find a second wife for the tall, handsome Peters, inviting several nubile prospects to the house. Peters would have none of them. Instead, he married another Svetlana. This time it was another Russian, Svetlana Aliluyeva, the only daughter of Joseph Stalin.

It hardly seemed a political connection that befitted the libertarian pacifist Wright. Nor would it have suited the Republican political landscape around Taliesin. Wright is said to have had a tad of the populist and the anarchist in him. One wonders what he might have thought of the most recent Arizonian whose sights were set on the Oval Office in Washington. Then again, he shared libertarian views with Goldwater, who spearheaded the ultra-conservative movement that came of age in the 1960s and later grew into the Moral Majority and later neo-conservative movements that elected George W. Bush. But those were more raucous times, times that Wright would have strived to escape.

Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982, Taliesin West sits apart from Phoenix’s seemingly endless string of desert golf courses here in the Valley of the Sun. As local baseball diamonds come alive with the annual ritual of Major League spring training, it remains a monument to the shining mind of one of America’s architectural giants. It also stands as possibly the country’s only familial connection to Joe Stalin.

*Ron Verzuh is a Vancouver writer. He travelled to Arizona in February 2009.

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