“The whole idea of putting solar panels on the roof was odious,” Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer says to me as we discuss the installation of a new 250-kilowatt solar system at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic winter home and studio near Scottsdale, Arizona. Pfeiffer is the well-known Wright archivist and author of many standard-bearing anthologies of Wright’s work, but before he was those things, he was one of Wright’s apprentices and helped build Wright’s winter retreat.
Despite their relationship, Pfeiffer is reticent to ever put words in Wright’s mouth, but he does think Wright would be pleased with the new solar installation—once it was moved to an off-building location on the property. “Anything that would take you off dependence of public service Wright would like,” Pfeiffer says, explaining that Wright didn’t like others usurping his independence. After receiving particularly large utility bills for his other residence, Taliesin, in Wisconsin, Pfeiffer recalls that Wright was “so exasperated he put us on diesel generators.”
I can imagine the twinkle in Wright’s eye at the sweet deal Taliesin West got for the new solar array. First Solar installed the entire system gratis—just for the publicity. Now, Wright’s property is off the grid for good.
Many consider the organic design movement Wright fostered to be the prelude to the sustainability trends emerging today. He wanted humanity to live in harmony with nature, but he also wasn’t afraid to use the latest technologies to do it.
Looking back into Wright’s world from our perspective, we see an architect keenly interested in making buildings more efficient. “In 1943 through 1945, Wright was doing planted roofs, backing up earth onto buildings to conserve energy; he was explicit about conserving energy,” Pfeiffer says. “He always took advantage of a site, taking a design and turning it on the compass point to take advantage of the sun.” In 1958, in his final years, Wright included solar panels in a scheme for a private residence, but the home was never built.
Updating Wright structures for a sustainable 21st century still poses complex challenges however. At Taliesin West, it was agreed that the solar array would be kept from the buildings. Pfeiffer says that advertising for the solar installation company can be seen, but it doesn’t impede the view in any way, and it can’t be seen from the building. Recently, the congregation of the First Unitarian Society of Madison in Wisconsin wanted to expand on its Wright-designed structure from the 1940s. (Pfeiffer worked construction on this building as an apprentice.) To do so, it had to integrate the ideals of its faith, the needs of the congregation, and the design of a building Wright completed more than sixty years ago.
Using pattern mapping and assembling a standing committee of Wright experts, Kubala Washatko Architects created an addition that serves the needs of the congregation while remaining in close relation—but not an imitation—of Wright’s original work. The 20,000-square-foot addition, embanked into the side of a hill with a green roof and a solar hemicycle shape, is the first ecclesiastical structure in Wisconsin to be certified LEED Gold.
Pfeiffer, now in the twilight of his own career, told me what Wright once told him: “Go through life with an open hand rather than a closed fist and ideas will come to you when you least expect.” I have no doubt that if Wright were alive today, he would be on the forefront of the sustainable design movement, using new technology and ideas to push it further forward.
Alan Oakes is an architectural historian, writer, documentarian, and regular contributor to gb&d.