Celebrating Wright's legacy in the Arizona desert
In the 1920s, Phoenix found itself caught in a war to attract Pasadena-bound tourists. The city’s strategy for victory? A “Do Away with the Desert” campaign. Its weapons? Non-native trees, roses, and grassy, Californiafied lawns. And then came Frank Lloyd Wright. In the decade following the launch of the community campaign to “beautify” the desert, Wright, cape flourishing, migrated to central Arizona wielding an entirely different aesthetic philosophy.
“The good building is not one that hurts the landscape,” Wright wrote, “but one which makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before the building was built.”
Defined by sharp angles, unyielding sun, and vegetation barbed for battle, the Sonoran Desert was a severe departure from the verdant, rolling hills of Wright’s Wisconsin home — but Wright was spellbound by its harsh beauty. He went on to establish his winter sanctuary, studio, and school in the then-remote Scottsdale desert in 1937.
On June 8, 2017, Wright would have turned 150. And what better way to celebrate the birthday of one of America’s most influential architects than with a pilgrimage to the Wright-designed and Wright-influenced structures that grace our state? Following is a selection of sites to help you forge your own “path of discovery” through the architect’s romantic vision of the desert.
Wright’s 491-acre winter home and school in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains is considered by many to be his crowning achievement, built almost exclusively by Wright and his apprentices. But even those who disagree with that verdict recognize Taliesin West as a muse for some of his greatest work. In its sunny drafting rooms, Wright drew up plans for masterpieces like New York’s spiraling Guggenheim.
Inspired by his love for The Thousand and One Nights, Wright toyed with the idea of naming his desert property “Aladdin,” but ultimately opted to adopt the name of the school’s Wisconsin counterpart, “Taliesin.” It’s a name that’s no less romantic, though. Drawing on the legend of a poet named Taliesin, which means “shining brow” in Welsh, the name reflected Wright’s view that a building should bloom from the side of a hill rather than deface the landscape by sitting on top of it.
Wright’s Taliesin West property preaches organic architecture, blending with and surrendering to the desert’s elements. The original buildings were designed to remain open; initially, he even forbade the installation of glass windows. The walls were constructed from stones his apprentices hauled down the mountainside and sand from the desert floor. White canvas ceilings maximize natural light and, along with the complex’s distinctive front “prow,” create the image of a ship afloat in the desert.
His respect for the land coincided with a deep regard for the traditions of the people who held it sacred. When surveying stone for the construction of the property, his apprentices found petroglyphs carved by the Hohokam. Wright placed these in carefully selected locations around the property. He even aligned the complex itself along an axis that pointed to distant sites the Hohokam believed to be spiritually significant.
Inside, Wright’s temple to nature reveals itself as a shrine to music, too. “He saw architecture as frozen music,” explains Phil Chadwick, a docent who has been leading tours at Taliesin West for nine years. Wright thought a room’s design should echo the dynamic drama of a symphony, a tenet he cultivated in his Taliesin apprentices. “Learning an instrument, and learning to perform in front of your peers, was part of the curriculum,” Chadwick says. “Wright believed you couldn’t be a successful architect if you didn’t know music. And you wouldn’t be successful at selling your work if you didn’t know how to perform.”
Chadwick describes the performance spaces as “95 percent acoustically perfect.” In the sloping Cabaret Theater, he steps down to the sunken stage to demonstrate the amplifying effect of the design, closing his tour with a quote from Wright: “If you foolishly ignore beauty, you’ll soon find yourself without it. Your life will be impoverished. But if you wisely invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.”
Indeed, Taliesin West’s beauty continues to deliver priceless returns. The site earned National Historic Landmark status in 1982. Today, it attracts thousands of visitors, but also serves as more than a museum. As headquarters for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and home to the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, Taliesin West is a living tribute to the architect’s vision.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Spire
Wright’s rejected 1957 design for the Arizona State Capitol building was partially resurrected in an unlikely — and some might argue undignified — location: a North Scottsdale mall. The glowing, 125-foot electric-blue spire, located on the corner of Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard and Scottsdale Road, was constructed in 2004, using 1,700 individual pieces of steel. It’s one of the latest homages to the architect and makes for an interesting stop on the drive down from Taliesin West.
First Christian Church
Like the Frank Lloyd Wright Spire, the imposing structure sprouting on the southwest corner of Phoenix’s otherwise inauspicious 7th Avenue and Glendale Avenue was a Wright project completed posthumously from a recycled blueprint. Originally drawn up as the campus for Southwest Christian Seminary and shelved when the seminary folded, the plan was resurrected to become the home of First Christian Church.
Contrasting the horizontal sprawl of Taliesin West, First Christian’s towering elements draw the eye upward. The church’s freestanding 120-foot bell tower is four-sided, but appears to be triangular from every angle. The spire on the roof, also four-sided, mimics the bell tower’s triangular illusion; the way each side catches the light makes the spire appear to rotate as you drive by. Rising 77 feet, the roof and spire — which Wright called “the lantern” — are supported by 23 slender concrete and steel pillars that extend from one side of the building to the other. Nighttime visitors are treated to a colorful view, as the stained glass in the spire and lantern are illuminated from within.
Inside, Wright fans will note the signature “embrace and release” design that produces so many bumped foreheads in the entryways of Taliesin West. The symbolism is particularly appropriate in this context: Low ceilings in the lobby open up to soaring heights in the worship space.
Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium
The rotund structure on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus originally was intended to be an opera house on the Tigris River in Baghdad, surrounded by Eden-like gardens. The project fell through, but Wright’s next opportunity to use the plan came in 1957, when ASU President Grady Gammage called on him to design an auditorium.
Wright undertook the project at age 90 and never lived to see his plan for this building brought to life, nor did Grady Gammage. Left in the hands of the Taliesin Associated Architects, the concert hall became one of the first great tests of the group’s talents. Producing Wright’s colossal vision on a university budget proved difficult, however, leading to notable departures from Wright’s original blueprint. (For one, the Garden of Eden concept was supplanted by the need for parking.) The building was completed in 1964, and earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
Gammage’s vast, circular exterior gets mixed reactions, drawing comparisons to a circus tent or an ornate cake on stilts. The design emphasizes combinations of geometric shapes, and curtain-like folds envelope each terrace. Its 200-foot-long “flying buttress” pedestrian bridges extend like inviting arms.
The auditorium’s most distinguishing feature, though, is one theatergoers can’t see: acoustics. It was designed to showcase unamplified performances and to ensure sound traveled uniformly to every seat. Though the concert hall encompasses three-levels and 3,000 seats, the floating tier ensures the farthest seat is only 115 feet from the stage.
The “Jewel of the Desert” — an invitation-only establishment until the 1970s — has swarmed with glamorous personalities since its Depression-era birth. Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Irving Berlin, and nearly every president since Herbert Hoover have stayed in its rooms. Like its cast of characters, the hotel itself glitters, ceilings hand-pressed with gold. With such a luxurious reputation, it’s no wonder the myth that the hotel was designed by the famously opulent Wright persists.
Though Frank Lloyd Wright was not the Arizona Biltmore’s architect, he and the hotel had a mutually beneficial relationship. In 1928, reeling from near-ruinous debt in Wisconsin, Wright received an invitation for an extended desert escape from his former draftsman Albert Chase McArthur. McArthur had received a commission to design the $2 million Biltmore hotel in Phoenix. Set on using Wright’s textile-block system, the architect asked Wright to join him as a consultant on the project. Wright immediately accepted $10,000 for the right to use the block patent (even though he didn’t actually have a patent) and fled for Arizona to oversee construction.
Aside from Wright’s characteristic blocks — which are said to resemble palm leaves or to represent a mathematical formula for the refraction of light — the Biltmore didn’t accumulate much of the Wrightian flair visitors enjoy today until 1973, when Taliesin Associated Architects renovated the resort. Modifications included adding geometrically patterned, Wright-inspired carpets and a “Frank Lloyd Wright Suite” in the East Wing.
The hotel also features Wright’s artwork. In the lobby, the stained glass panel — designed to represent saguaro silhouettes and cactus flowers — was created in the 1970s based on a sketch he drew for Liberty magazine in 1927. Six solemn sculptures called Sprites, designed by Wright in 1914 for the Midway Gardens in Chicago and gifted to the Biltmore in 1985, watch over the grounds.
The David & Gladys Wright House
Tucked into the historic citrus groves of the Arcadia neighborhood of Phoenix, this design is Wright’s thesis on how to live in the Southwest. It’s one of only three spiral structures produced by Wright, paving the way for the Guggenheim. The home’s curved blocks coil upward, offering impressive views of Camelback Mountain from its ramps and rooms. Completed in 1952 for his son, David, and daughter-in-law, Gladys, it is considered Wright’s final residential masterpiece.