‘Footprints on the Desert’ exhibit highlights Frank Lloyd Wright’s impact on Scottsdale

‘Footprints on the Desert’ exhibit highlights Frank Lloyd Wright’s impact on Scottsdale

By Kenneth LaFave / Photos by Stephen C. Price

Exhibit highlights Frank Lloyd Wright’s impact on Scottsdale

When the asphalt lies beneath your feet and the buildings all around you look like gigantic chards of glass and steel, it’s difficult to remember we live in a desert.

One man, at least, wanted us never to forget: Frank Lloyd Wright. For the last 20 years of his life, the greatest American architect of the 20th century lived in the Valley part-time, and designed buildings with the intent of blending architecture into the rolling brown landscape all around us.

“He was really focused on adapting to the desert,” says Tawn Downs, central division director for the AZ Heritage Center at Papago Park.

Sponsored by a grant from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and in collaboration with Taliesen West, Wright’s former Scottsdale home and current site of the School of Architecture at Taliesen, the Arizona Heritage Center will present the exhibition “Footprints on the Desert: Frank Lloyd Wright in Arizona.” Through drawings, photographs, 3D models, artifacts, audio and video, the exhibition will explore Wright’s thesis that architecture should grow from its environment, rather than be imposed upon it.

“He called this idea ‘organic architecture,’ and it really comes into play in this exhibition,” Downs says. “It was important to him for his buildings to become integral to the environment. Part of that he achieved through natural materials and the use of light.”

An example of the latter is Wright’s office at Taliesen West, viewable on tour there. Small, high windows allow in just enough sunlight to provide natural illumination without any hint of glare.

The exhibition will feature video tours of buildings Wright designed for the Valley, including two private residences, the David Wright House and the Harold C. Price House, the various spaces at Taliesen West, and ASU Gammage, the huge performance facility in Tempe that Wright adapted from a design he’d made for an opera house in Baghdad. Wright’s last public commission, Gammage auditorium was completed by one of his students after Wright’s death on April 9, 1959, in Phoenix. He was 91.

“The exhibition looks at the ASU Gammage design, and of course Taliesen West, and also at the legacy he left through the school there,” Downs says.

Though Wright created more than 80 designs for Arizona, fewer than 20 were realized. Without knowing, thousands of people every day drive past a remnant of one of those unrealized projects.

“He did a design for the state capitol, which for its time was really ‘out there’,” Downs says. “In Wright’s mind, though, he felt it was just right for the time (1957), not ahead of it.”

The centerpiece of Wright’s proposed capitol design was to have been a 125-foot tall, blue-and-turquoise spire assembled from some 1,700 pieces of steel. Internal lights would make the tapering tower glow at night. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the spire alone was finally built in 2004 at the corner of North Scottsdale Road and Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd., to adorn the Scottsdale Promenade shopping mall.

Like everything else Wright designed for the desert, it seems strangely in place. Unlike the buildings he designed into the sides of hills, however, the Frank Lloyd Wright spire celebrates the large Arizona sky by pointing to it and disappearing into it.

Wright recognized many ways of fitting into the landscape. The one thing it would not abide, however, was merely “plopping a building down” in the middle of the desert.

“That was the bane of his existence,” Downs explains, the enemy incarnate.

“Footprints on the Desert” will examine Wright’s designs and aesthetics and should “produce an appreciation of the way his brain worked,” as Downs put it. The exhibition recognizes the 150th anniversary this year of the architect’s birth. It opened Oct. 13 at the AZ Heritage Center at Papago Park, 1300 N. College Ave. in Tempe, housed in the museum of the Arizona Historical Society. It shows there through March, and will afterward show at the Scottsdale Main Library. For more information, call 480-929-0292 or visit arizonahistoricalsociety.org/museums/tempe.