I’m sitting in Frank Lloyd Wright’s partially subterranean dinner theatre, hewn from the desert on the outskirts of Phoenix. It’s part of my evening tour of Taliesin West, the late architect’s winter home and studio, and the campus for his school of architecture. The “theatre” is really just a hexagonal bunker with bench seating and tables modelled on those Wright designed for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, but the shape eliminates echo and makes the place 95-percent acoustically perfect. When the piano didn’t fit on the original stage, the world’s most famous architect just had a hole cut for it in the rock, which conveniently acted as a natural speaker. My first thought after the tour, which includes a break for Arnold Palmers and cookies out on the front lawn, is that Wright was a genius. My second thought is that he was cuckoo.
While Southern California is known for its swank modernist retreats, Phoenix has more of a Wild West approach to architecture. The result is some of the most innovative work you’ll find in the United States. As Vern Swaback, a disciple of Wright’s, explained a few days later in his adobe studio, “It’s a place that hasn’t been locked into shape like New York or Chicago. Here, everything’s up for grabs.” That’s because Phoenix is an incredibly young city – it’ll turn 100 next year – and it wasn’t until the 1950s, when the first air conditioners were mass-produced here, that things really got going. The mid-century modern Hotel Valley Ho, where I’m staying in the posh suburb of Scottsdale, is considered historic, and it only opened in 1956, when Hollywood decamped here from Palm Springs. The place was so remote that it was too inconvenient for the paparazzi to follow.
“It’s on the foundations of Taliesin West, no pun intended, that this valley has become the architectural mecca that it is,” local starchitect Will Bruder explains between bites of cheeseburger at the designer watering hole AZ/88, while I sip a mint julep out of a Kentucky Derby-worthy pewter cup. “People are willing to try something a little different here.”
That would be somewhat of an understatement. After drinks, Bruder walks me over to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, a building he created on the lean budget of $2-million using the bones of an old dollar theatre. We head to SMoCA’s most famous piece, the James Turrell skyspace, which is part artwork and part igloo-like building just outside the entrance, to watch the sky fall. It’s half an hour after sunset, and we sit on a bench staring through an oval hole in the ceiling, like the top that’s been taken off a soft-boiled egg. It’s hard to explain, but inside, the sun seems to set earlier than it actually does: Within 20 minutes, the sky has turned an inky black and seems to be dropping into our laps. I duck outside to check and the “real” sky is still a dusky royal blue. The whole Chicken Little effect is created through subtle interior lighting. Turrell, a master of perceptual psychology, is simply playing with that most Phoenician of icons: the sun. “People come here on holiday,” Bruder laughs, “and they see the surreal flora and fauna of the desert and the horizon you enjoyed from your hotel. They think, ‘Where is that light coming from?’”
This is indeed, verbatim, what I was thinking sometime around 5 a.m. on my first morning here. (In Phoenix, jet lag has its advantages.) When the sun rises in the desert, the black shadows of the comic-book cacti light up in silhouette like old-fashioned cutouts, as though a switch has suddenly been turned on. Face the other way and the sky is a layer cake of intense blue and orange. Then there’s that landscape: The Sonoran Desert is one of the most ecologically diverse on the planet. Ruddy mountains embrace the city limits, and the most famous of them is Camelback, a recumbent dromedary whose head rests drowsily against the ground as though it’s gotten too much sun.
Of course, it’s also those qualities that give Phoenix its unfortunate reputation as “God’s waiting room.” The snowbird boom means that most of the housing you see is of a style snidely called Taco Deco: cheap stucco haciendas that look more like Mexican drive-thrus, endlessly sprawling toward the outskirts.
“In six months, a field would be gone,” local farmer turned artist Matthew Moore says, trying to give me a sense of the speed of development when I meet up with him during Scottsdale’s Thursday night ArtWalk at the Lisa Sette Gallery. We’re standing in front of a photo of one of Moore’s large earthworks, a farmer’s field he hoed by hand over the course of four months into the shape of a typical floor plan for a model home. It’s tellingly named Single Family Residence 5, even though the structure is 950 by 400 feet. One day it occurred to him that his own farm was really just another subdivision waiting to happen. “I thought, those are all just lots, going off in the distance.” Moore waves toward the wheat, carrot and sorghum fields that edge the city’s fringe in the photo. “The only thing that would probably let you know how I really felt about it is that there’s no door. There’s no exit.”
If much of Greater Phoenix does sometimes feel like one big endless suburb, the trick for any archi-tourist is to get behind the facade. Which is why you need to find the MoPhos: the Modern Phoenicians.
“Now isn’t this just the perfect desert moment.” Jeffrey Harakal, a real estate broker, is pointing to a hummingbird hovering above the garden in the entry courtyard of his glass box of a home, designed by Case Study architect Al Beadle in the 1970s. Harakal and his partner, SMoCA director Tim Rodgers, live here with their two poodles and are perhaps the nicest MoPhos you’ll ever meet. They’re part of a community of people intent on preserving the city’s incredible mid-century heritage. As Rodgers tells me over a dinner that is a generous amount of wine accompanied by a salad, “Modern architecture gives people something in the Valley with a little history and a little depth to it.”
Architect’s Row, a strip in Central Phoenix where architects had their live/work spaces back in the day, is now home to Red Modern Furniture, a warehouse of Eames-era furnishings in a vintage Ralph Haver building that still sports its original carport. Next door is St. Francis, a restaurant where everything gets thrown into the wood-fired oven – including pork chops, flatbreads and my starter of wild mushrooms – and transformed into something delicious. The space was revamped by local architectural superstar Wendell Burnette, a protegé of Will Bruder’s – try to nab the table at the front, in a glass box that seems to magically jut out of the building. A few minutes’ drive away is The Parlor, a modern pizzeria that cheekily occupies the former Salon de Venus beauty parlour (complete with a vintage hair dryer by the bathrooms). While no one does hair here anymore, you’ll still get lightly spritzed on your way in by the refreshing misters that hang just outside the entrance.
Some of Phoenix’s most interesting architecture, though, is still underground. In a municipality optimistically named Paradise Valley – though it feels more like Mars – you’ll find what might be the world’s coolest gift shop. Imagine the lair of an Italian hobbit who’s had one too many Negronis and you get a sense of Cosanti, the compound of Wright’s Italian disciple Paolo Soleri, who at 92 still lives on-site. (You can have a lot of fun playing six degrees of Frank Lloyd Wright here; Soleri was also Bruder’s teacher.) To create the building, Soleri carved the earth like a sculptural mould, poured a thin layer of concrete overtop, then hollowed out the inside so that the whole site sits about two metres under the surface of the desert.
This makes sense, considering that Soleri is more of a sculptor than a practising architect, and it’s in this gift shop that you can pick up the bells that come from his foundry. I want to call them funky wind chimes, but since Soleri was a god to a certain architectural set in the ’60s, that would be wrong. (Buckminster Fuller and Moshe Safdie made pilgrimages to visit him here around the time of Montreal’s Expo 67.) He figured out green design before it was trendy: The studio is in a giant concrete semicircle that absorbs the low winter sun to radiate heat and then shades the work area in summer. Call it the original LEED architecture.
“He just came out of hibernation,” says Lisa Sette by way of apology as Larry, her adopted desert tortoise, tries to tuck his neck back into his shell. (I want to tell her that back home, my much less exotic cats aren’t particularly friendly either.) Behind us is the House of Earth + Light, where she lives with her graphic designer husband in what might be Phoenix’s most famous contemporary residence. (It was on the cover of the first issue of Dwell magazine.) After Sette and her husband woke up to a busload of gawking Japanese tourists one morning a few years ago, they built a wall.
The house straddles a mountain wash, meaning the living room essentially becomes a bridge during the rainy season. In the bedroom, a floor-level window looks into the swimming pool, so you can watch people doing laps from the bed. Out back is a bona fide bocce court and a metal shop that’s been transformed into a guest house for visiting artists. Even more surprising: The home’s design was originally commissioned from architect Marwan Al-Sayed by a couple of firefighters, who built the place themselves with the help of their buddies from the local station. Personally, I can barely change a washer in a faucet.
“There’s a contemporary pioneer vision here,” Sette says as we sit in her light-filled dining room, which overlooks the rugged flank of Piestewa Peak. Even the prized ’50s residences here were originally built for the middle class, and many architects today practise their ideas on homes for friends or themselves. It’s that kind of Old West resourcefulness that keeps the architecture here so exciting.
Sette lives just beyond the reach of city codes, which means her area is “an architecturally freewheeling enclave.” She points out the “fabulous Will Bruder” on the other side of her backyard. Not too far away is a flying-saucer-shaped Frank Lloyd Wright home that looks like the starship Enterprise had touched down and someone decided it might be nice to move in. It’s a modern masterpiece, but easy enough to spot on the hiking trails the locals use for their morning jog or to walk their dogs.
Those lucky MoPhos.
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Where to Stay
The Hotel Valley Ho was seamlessly restored to its 1950s glory in 2005 with the addition of even more modern mod cons. Stay in one of the original motel-like wings or splash out on a playful Tower Suite, complete with a sunny kitchen and board games – Jenga, anyone? – in the bedroom. Bonus: The Red Flower toiletries are pilfer-worthy.
6850 E. Main St., Scottsdale, 480-248-2000, hotelvalleyho.com
The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North, built on the site of the Kelloggs’ Crescent Moon Ranch, is the perfect hideaway outside the city. The Sonoran Desert is literally at your doorstep with giant cacti dotting the grounds and quail, bunnies and lizards roaming wild (not to mention the plush coyotes kids get upon arrival). On especially hot days, or just really lazy ones, ask one of the golf-cart-driving bellmen to ferry you around, even if it’s just to pick up a cooling glass of prickly pear iced tea at reception.
10600 E. Crescent Moon Dr., Scottsdale, 480-515-5700, fourseasons.com/scottsdale
Where to Eat
Phoenix’s new adaptive reuse program has finally allowed restaurants to revamp some of the city’s classic mid-century spaces. (The light rail system, which reinvigorated the downtown core, can also take some credit for the revitalization.) St. Francis is a boisterous contemporary restaurant in a former architect’s office, though we’re guessing the wood-fired oven isn’t original. (After you eat, you can drop by Red Modern Furniture next door.) Aric Mei, the owner-designer of The Parlor, a pizzeria that took up residence in a former 1950s beauty salon, also lives in one of the area’s classic Al Beadle developments.
The Parlor 1916 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-248-2480, theparlor.us
Red Modern Furniture 201 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-256-9620, redmodernfurniture.com
St. Francis 111 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-200-8111, stfrancisaz.com
What to Do
Archi-tourists interested in modern Phoenix should book a half day with Ace Bailey of Ultimate Art & Cultural Tours. She’ll give you an encyclopedic-but-never-boring insider’s look at such local architectural icons as the Hotel Valley Ho, Cosanti and Cattle Track, an artists’ commune built by George Ellis (the guy who supposedly taught Wright everything there was to know about building in the desert).
For a unique behind-the-scenes look at one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpieces, book the Night Lights on the Desert tour at Taliesin West. As night falls and the buildings are illuminated from within, you’ll get a great sense of the spaces. Though the American architect only moved here when he was 70, his influence on Arizona’s architecture was profound.
12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd., Scottsdale, 480-627-5340, franklloydwright.org
Tim Rodgers, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art’s resourceful director, has landed the institution some stellar travelling exhibitions, including a recent show by Rivane Neuenschwander. Just outside the museum, you’ll find James Turrell’s Knight Rise, a skyspace where you can watch the sun set early, thanks to a trick of the light. To see work by contemporary art heavyweights like Matthew Moore and William Wegman, drop by the Lisa Sette Gallery nearby.
Lisa Sette Gallery 4142 N. Marshall Way, Scottsdale, 480-990-7342, lisasettegallery.com
SMoCA 7374 E. 2nd St., Scottsdale, 480-994-2787, smoca.org