Desert Rose

Taliesin sculpture garden
Casitas in cactus

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012 edition of Ensemble Vacations. Click here to see a PDF of the original article


Architecture Blooms in the Sonoran Desert

Copper Bells CosantiIn the Sonoran desert near Scottsdale Arizona, are two legendary sites that blend buildings with nature: they are the living and creating centres of Frank Lloyd Wright and  Paolo Soleri, two architectural geniuses of our time. The two men were connected: in the late 1940’s, the 28-year old Soleri, newly graduated from the Politecnico in Torni, Italy, wrote to Wright asking to study with him. The answer was yes, and Soleri came to Arizona, studied with Wright for a year and a half and stayed forever.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West became his winter residence in 1937; he fell in love with the Sonoran desert when he came to Arizona to oversee designs of the Biltmore hotel. Today Taliesin West is considered one of his crowning achievements. It still draws visitors as well as architecture students, who can build their own dwellings, just as they did  when Wright was alive.

Overlooking the desert valley, the 600-acre Taliesin West is a harmonic assemblage of  low rise buildings, many with overhanging roofs that deflect the sun. The horizontal buildings of heavy desert stone and thick redwood beams lead onto terraces and walkways and long pools. They.  give the visitor a heart-stopping sense of Wright’s greatness: they still astonish with their artistry and their harmony with nature; this is surely what Wright meant by organic architecture.. Wright said the place  “belonged to the Arizona desert as though it had stood there during creation”.

Taliesin Sculpture
Taliesin Sculpture

America’s greatest architect was in his early 70’s when he moved into his winter quarters in the desert, and he still had his extraordinary creative powers: he designed the Guggenheim Museum and other buildings during his winter sojourns in the desert. He died in l959, just short of his 92nd birthday.

Taliesin offers six well-organized tours, from one to three hours, which can be purchased in advance or at the gift  shop stocked with crafts and books. (No self-guided tours are allowed). The knowledgeable guides refer to the architect as “Mr.Wright”, and talk about his quixotic personality along with  his buildings and theories. He seems to inhabit the grounds – the buildings, sculpture gardens and the furniture, all of which he designed, down to the sconces.

Taliesin West is not a museum – it is still an architecture school as well as the home of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and Archives. www.franklloydwright.org.

Wright was breathtakingly creative and often  iconoclastic, yet at the same time rather formal, Even in the desert camp he would dress in a jacket and flowing tie. He also liked the high life, inviting movie stars to dinners where students in bow ties served as waiters; he held soirees in his theatre, with the seats upholstered in his signature Cherokee Red colour. You can sit in those seats today. You can see his office. You can even peer into Wright’s bedroom, at the stunning simplicity of the stone-embedded walls and the few pieces of furniture and coloured pillows. (His wife, the Russian-born Olgivanna, had her own quarters, where she lived part-time until her death in l985).  Sitting in larger Wright-designed chairs, visitors feel like special guests in the dramatic Garden Room, the 56-feet long living room covered by a sloping, translucent roof and linked to a garden.

A mere five miles away is Paolo Soleri’s Cosanti, (www.cosanti.com).   The posh suburb of Paradise Valley has grown up around it but you’d never know if you followed the  narrow road and the sign that says “Soleri, Visitors Welcome” Here you will come upon an eccentric, almost hobbit-like collection of buildings and crafts studios; some are open-air, others so low that they are half submerged in the earth. This five-acre space is where Paolo Soleri, the Italian born architect, artist, ceramicist still lives and works in a studio he built 55 years ago.

Cosanti, designated an Arizona Historic Site,  is a must-see if you’re in the Scottsdale area. It is like the architecture of Gaudi gone to the extreme –  trippy structures, many of them on without walls..The ceramics studio, for instance, has what looks like an angled stained glass roof and seems to rest on stilts.  There are paths to explore and huge sculptures to marvel at.

And of course there are the bells, the famous Soleri bronze and ceramic bells and  wind chimes.. It’s hard to think of a better souvenir or gift. Small bells cost $35 and large bell sculptures run into the thousands of dollars. Each one  has a different sound. Go in the morning, when the bronze bells are being poured in the small, outdoor foundry.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Living Room Taliesin
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Living Room

The place  and its founder couldn’t be more different from the grandiose Wright’s winter quarters.  Stories differ about why Wright asked Soleri to leave Taliesin, but they have nothing to do with Soleri’s work. In fact, Wright referred a client to him, and. Soleri married her daughter, Colly. After a few years in Italy, where Soleri built a ceramics factory,  they moved back to Arizona. She died in 1982 and Soleri, who turned 93 last June, remains at Cosanti. Unlike Wright, he has always lived frugally. Revered by his followers; he is more Paolo than Mr. Soleri. He has written extensively, coined the term “arcology”, combining architecture and ecology, and is now credited with being decades before his time in thinking about sustainable urban communities  and alternative energy. Yet he was never a prolific builder like Wright.. Soleri’s life’s work is Arcosanti, an urban experiment in the high desert, 65 miles away. Attracting architecture and design students for temporary stays, it became a kind of never completed ideal, and now has only 56 permanent residents, a far cry from the 5,000 Soleri envisioned. Last year Soleri handed over the reins of his foundation to  Jeff Stein, former dean of the Boston Architectural College. (Tours are available, www.arcosanti.org)

In Cosanti, if you’re lucky, as I was, Soleri himself, a sprite-like nonagenarian, will emerge from his small house to chat with visitors. A prolific writer and theorist, he can talk about his ahead-of-his-time theories of urban living (no cars, high density but humanized living, with nature nearby),  or his signature technique of earthcasting – pouring a thin-shell of concrete into a pre-shaped earthen mold, then excavating the earth once the concrete sets.. (The technique won a gold medal for craftsmanship from the American Institute of Architects).. But this afternoon he impishly suggests it is time for a drink. “I’m Italian but in my old age I sometimes like beer instead of wine”.

Frank Lloyd Wright bedroom at Taliesin West
Frank Lloyd Wright bedroom at Taliesin West

There was much to toast in December of  2010, when Soleri’s pedestrian bridge and plaza were dedicated.   He had designed bridges for 60 years, and shown them in exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art. But this was the only one that was built. In one his published “Sketchbooks”, published by MIT press, Soleri wrote:

”To bridge is as cogent in the psychic realm as it is in the physical world. The bridge is a symbol of confidence and trust. It is a communications medium as much as a connector.”

Soleri’s 130-foot long pedestrian bridge connects the Scottsdale Waterfront to the south bank of the Arizona Canal. It links restaurants, Old Town, and the huge Fashion Square Mall. It features two 64-foot silvery pylons; the shadows they cast indicate solar noon and the summer and winter solstice.  And there’s more: a 22,000 sq.foot plaza includes 11 earth-cast panels designed by Soleri. (The website, www.soleribridge.com serves as a one-stop-shop for all things Soleri).

Success at 90? Maybe it’s the desert air. After all, Frank Lloyd Wright began living at Taliesin West when he was 73; at 80, when he met Solieri, he claimed could still shake buildings out of his sleeve (he was right). Some of Soleri’s ideas and drawings, so relevant to a time trying to go  green, could yet be translated into structures. For now, the great luck for visitors to Scottsdale is that Taliesin and Cosanti are there to experience.

Scottsdale’s Walkable Neighbourhoods

The areas on either side of the Soleri Bridge show Scottsdale’s now walkable neighbourhoods.

The Scottsdale Convention and Visitor’s Bureau recently launched www.architectureinscottsdale.com, a guide to 30 of the city’s distinctive buildings, with a map of a walking tour and free trolley route.

Nearby is Fashion Square (www.fashionsquare.com), the Southwest’s largest shopping mall.

After experiencing Taliesin and Cosanti, and their connection with the primeval Sonoran desert, you can’t just stay anywhere. The Boulders (www.theboulders.com), outside of Scottsdale, is a series of 160 casitas (little houses) embedded in 1600 acres of unspoiled desert.  Formations of granite boulders, several million years old, are everywhere, as are cacti and desert animals such as jackrabbits and lizards. Next door is the Golden Door Spa.

Casitas in cactus, The Boulders

By contrast, within the restaurant and art gallery centre of the town is the new Saguara (www.saguaro.com) part of the Joie de Vivre Hotels’ whimsical boutique collection. Moderately priced, it’s a revelation in design that gets by on simplicity and colour, the hotel feature Distrito, a modern Mexican restaurant and bar designed by the noted Chef Jose Garces

Not far from the Soleri Bridge is a new restaurant that is making waves in Scottsdale. FnB Restaurant (www.fnbrestaurant.com) serves small plates like “braised leeks, mozzarella, mustard bread crumbs, a fried egg”.

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