Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesen West
Paolo Soleri's Arcosanti
by Sean O'Byrne
The first-time visitor to Phoenix might be forgiven a sinking feeling when first arriving in the city, whether by ground or air. At first glance, this sprawling metropolis appears to offer little more than endless, identical strip malls and Taco Bell cuisine, a not entirely unfounded perception.
Phoenix, as it is generally understood, encompasses many outlying districts which originally developed as separate entities. Today, though, the boundaries exist in name only between Phoenix proper and Mesa, Tempe and Scottsdale (to name only a few neighboring towns). Add to this a predilection for low-rise buildings and the sense of urban sprawl becomes palpable.
So, let's say you've had your fill of golf and are looking for something different to do. What, aside from climate, can the Valley of the Sun claim as its unique legacy? Well, for one thing, the region has a thriving arts culture. In fact, Scottsdale alone has been called home by two of the most influential architectural visionaries of the last century, Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri.
Wright's Taliesen West
About a mile north of Shea Boulevard in Scottsdale, Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesen West rises quietly from the sandstone foothills of the McDowell Range. Started in 1937 as a winter studio (its summer counterpart, Taliesen East, is in Wisconsin), the complex continues today as a working school of architecture and design. It comprises numerous studios, student accommodations, a kitchen and dining room, a cabaret theatre and a museum.
Wright's best known architectural designs reflect the sense of openness and freedom so prized in American culture. He believed that a structure should not intrude upon its environment, but rather should grow from it. The buildings of Taliesen West are single-story, single-use structures arranged across the desert floor and which take their colors from the desert landscape. Ironically, Wright's aesthetic philosophy would return to scorn him.
A story is told of how he built Taliesen West well away from the urban chaos of Phoenix. One day, when surveying the southwest view at sunset, he noticed for the first time telephone towers and lines on the horizon, damning evidence that civilization was encroaching on his desert paradise. From that day, he swore never to look in that direction from Taliesen West again. Whether truth or fiction, the myth suits the icon.
Soleri's Cosanti Foundation
In 1956 Paolo Soleri and his wife Colly settled in Paradise Valley where, in 1965, they established the Cosanti Foundation. Paolo had received his doctorate with top honors from the Polytechnic school in Turin, Italy and had spent some 18 months in Scottsdale as a student under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen West.
While Wright's aesthetic influence is evident in Soleri's work, their philosophies diverged at one crucial point: Wright envisioned structures, on the home and community scales, predominantly in horizontal planes, feeling perhaps that this was suited to the wide-open spaces of America; Soleri, on the other hand, was European, where living conditions are necessarily more compact.
For him, a city built on a grid system with single-use buildings is exceptionally wasteful of land and resources, creating a dependency on automobiles. He had only to point at nearby Phoenix, where more than half of the developed land was dedicated to the motor vehicle, as an example of how much time and energy was unnecessarily expended on moving about the city between home, work, school, the market, etc.
In his view, these should all be easily and quickly accessible on foot, with cars used only for the greater distances between cities. It was in response to the automobile-oriented society that he developed the concept of "arcology," the harmonious marriage of architecture and ecology. An arcology-based city would be compact and 3-dimensional, rather than strictly flat or strictly vertical, thus minimizing its impact on the environment.
Residents would work no more than a 10-minute walk from their homes, eliminating the need for cars within the city. The buildings, rather than being either dwellings or offices, would instead serve multiple uses, with residences, stores and offices in the same structure. The incorporation of gardens and solar heating would make the arcology all but self-sufficient.
To put these theoretical visions to the test, Soleri began construction in 1970 of a prototype arcology called Arcosanti. Located 60 miles north of Phoenix at Cordes Junction, Arcosanti was projected to house 5,000-7,000 permanent residents, though it currently varies between 50 and 150 inhabitants. Progress on its construction is slow, as the project is almost entirely self-funded through the sale of bronze and ceramic windbells, tiles, etc.
Design, construction and operation of the project was by students and volunteers in consultation with Soleri, who divided his time between Arcosanti and the Foundation in Scottsdale. Students completed a series of workshops dealing with the theory of arcology and principles of design, construction, architecture and ecology. After completion of these courses, some elected to remain indefinitely as volunteer or paid workers. Some of the permanent residents have lived on the site for many years, and a generation of children has been born there. Soleri retired in 2011 at the age of 92 as President and CEO of the Cosanti Foundation. Paolo Soleri passed away on April 9, 2013. The Cosanti Foundation continues to draw students to its workshops showcasing Soleri's concepts, and Arcosanti's history and projected future while they participate in ongoing projects.
Taliesen West, and Arcosanti are all accessible to the public. Taliesen West, located at 12621 North Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd., offers one- and three-hour tours daily. The one-hour tour is a general introduction to the architectural and aesthetic theories of Frank Lloyd Wright by means of a guided tour of the primary buildings of the complex. The three-hour tour is for those with a serious interest in Wright's work, allowing access to working studios and a more in-depth study of his philosophies. Tours start on the hour in the gift shop. Self-guided tours are not allowed.
The Cosanti Foundation, at 6433 Doubletree Ranch Road in Paradise Valley, costs nothing to view (though donations are always acceptable), and allows visitors to explore at their own pace the history of Soleri's work in Arizona and around the world. Storyboards, photographs and multimedia explain the progress of arcology from theory to practice, as well as the phenomenon of the famous Soleri windbells.
Visitors are invited to explore the grounds, though some private buildings are off-limits, including the outdoor foundry where you may be lucky enough to watch the bronze and ceramic windbells being cast. Sales of these bells constitute a major portion of the financing of both the Foundation and Arcosanti. Prices range from about $30 to several thousand dollars, depending on the size and design. The Foundation is open daily, except major holidays, from 9 am to 5 pm.
Arcosanti, about an hour's drive north of Phoenix on Highway 17, conducts excellent guided, hour-long tours every day as well as specialized tours including foreign language tours, bird watching tours and archaeological hikes. Guides walk visitors throughout the project (again, excepting certain private rooms) with well-informed commentary on the theoretical and practical issues surrounding Arcosanti and arcology in general. Questions are encouraged. As well, Arcosanti conducts seminars of varying duration which are available to the general public, in addition to an Elderhostel program for visitors 55 years and older. For reservations and information, please contact: 928.632.7135 or guests [at] arcosanti [dot] org or by writing to:
HC 74, Box 4136
Mayer AZ 86333
Another worthwhile stop, especially for the modern art enthusiast, is the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Part of the Scottsdale Civic Center complex, this building houses a theater, temporary exhibits by local and international artists, and several permanent installations by Seattle artist Dale Chihuly. Entrance is free, except for theater performances, and the gift shop is better than usual. The building is set in a park accentuated with ponds and modern sculpture. Set aside at least half a day to enjoy the Center, which is located at 7380 E. Second Street and Civic Center Blvd.
A perfect sunset view is of the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, directly north of the Biltmore Fashion Park. This resort is classic Frank Lloyd Wright design, replete with earth tones, minimal elevation, and asymmetrical motifs. Sightseers are allowed to explore the hotel and grounds and, of course, anyone with the funds can enjoy the restaurant. Put it on your "Once in my lifetime" list.
All of these unique places can be seen comfortably in the space of three days. Taliesen West and the Cosanti Foundation can easily be seen in a day. Because of the driving time, Arcosanti will require the better part of a day. Try to arrive early, as the bakery and café close at 3 pm. If you can avoid rush-hour traffic, the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, the galleries along North Marshall Way and the Arizona Biltmore can nicely fill a third day, keeping in mind that most of the private galleries on Marshall Way are closed on Sunday. See one of these, see all if you have the time. You will come away from Phoenix with a far richer impression than when you arrived.
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