A House Tour – Just Like a Building – Should be Greater than the Sum of its Parts

This blog has been re-posted from the PreservationNation blog.

Chris Madrid French’s recent blog post on Phoenix modernism on Preservation Nation reminded me of a recent weekend jaunt I took just a few miles east in Scottsdale, Arizona.

While there I did what any self respecting historian/preservationist would do and dragged my two cousins and my sister to see a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, Taliesin West. I’m going to start off by admitting that I do not know much more about Frank Lloyd Wright and his architecture style than his overarching building ethic of having structures that are “in tune with nature.” I love the way they mirror the landscape, providing an almost abstract art-like vision, modernist masterpieces that are close to the earth. They remind me that the soul of a building is much more than the sums of its parts—as Taliesin West exhibited with its tilted roofline, low ceilings, and sunset colored walls.

As magnificent as the building was, I found myself contemplating another art form—the art of a house tour. Being an interpreter is a tough job. No tour is alike—as I well know from giving historic house tours when I was in college. A guide has to be on his/her toes ready to pull from the reams of knowledge they have amassed. My experience—both in giving and attending—tells me that moving a house tour from good to great also involves the following:

  • Know your audience—at the start of the tour it is fine to ask your group about where they are from—but delve deeper. Find out how much the group knows about the site and why they’ve come to visit. And then ADAPT.
  • Show—don’t tell. Obviously there is a reason that this home/structure/architectural wonder has been preserved. However, a repeated exclamation stating that it is wonderful is not instructive when the evidence is right in front of us.
  • Time. I’ve often found that one of the biggest problems with house tours is the need to fill a specific time frame. It is important to recognize when you don’t have enough material—so as to prevent repetition. It is better to produce a tight program, rather than one that rambles and is repetitive over the course of an hour.
  • Tell us a story. This is a personal preference of mine. The house tours I tend to gravitate to make the broader connections between the architect, the place, and those who lived there. It is that interconnectedness that makes a space come alive and makes those past lives tangible.
Taliesin West

Maybe the early morning 95 degree heat in late March may have had something to do with it, but the last point is why I found the tour at Taliesin West slightly unfulfilling. We had the building, we had the great story of an architect whose work dots the American landscape in many forms, but we also had this amazing living history of a school—and the students who lived (and continue to live) there. However, as we moved around the main area, each of these pieces remained disconnected from one another; each existing as a part of their own separate sphere, ultimately lacking the organic, natural flow emphasized by the teachings of Wright.

As our guide stated—entering a Frank Lloyd Wright house is like listening to music. Each element blends seamlessly with the other—low entryways opening up into a robust chorale of space—with its own volume and tone leading to a symphony of nature in something that is man-made. This is how a great house tour should be: elements building upon one another, sifting through the potential cacophony of information creating seamless (with occasional improvisation) orchestration.

See pictures from Taliesin West.

Learn more about my trip to Arizona.

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