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Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, was the home and school of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He believed in building with local materials and that architecture should reflect and blend in with the environment. Photo by Jerry Ondash
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Arizona home to architects’ groundbreaking creative universes

Two of the most famous names in Arizona are neither Hispanic nor Native American. They are Taliesin, a Welch word that means “shining brow,” and Cosanti, a manufactured term that means “the thing before.”

Both words were coined by two forward-thinking artists, architects and dreamers who made Scottsdale, Arizona, the center of their creative universes.

When we planned our visit to Taliesin West (https://www.taliesinpreservation.org), the home and school founded by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), and Cosanti (https://arcosanti.org/visit/cosanti), home and studio of Paolo Soleri (1919-2013), we didn’t know that the latter had been a student of the former. In some ways they were similar; in other ways, not so much.

Mary Hoadley, an emeritus board member of the Cosanti Foundation, has been involved with Cosanti and Arcosanti for almost 50 years. She stands in an apse at Cosanti, the home and workshop of Paolo Soleri. The futuristic architect believed urban environments could be sustainable. Photo by Jerry Ondash

Both Wright and Soleri lived into their 90s and broke the rules of current thinking in their fields. Both were artists who excelled in several media. Both believed that buildings should be constructed with local materials, and that they should be integrated into the surrounding desert. Wright’s construction, however, took shape with many straight lines and sharp angles, while Soleri’s were all about curves and domes.

Our day of comparing and contrasting at Taliesin West (Taliesin East is in Wisconsin) and Cosanti was aided by excellent guides at both locations — people who had worked with the architects or had studied their lives extensively.

We began with Taliesin, situated on the southern slope of the McDowell Range overlooking the valley. Today, it is  home to 5 million, but I tried to imagine what this piece of desert looked like in 1935 when Wright first arrived. 

His wood, stone and cement buildings turned the architectural approach of the Victorian era on its head, making clean lines and utility the priority.

In contrast to his architecture, Wright’s life was complicated. There were three marriages, scandals, unconventional business arrangements — even a tragic death — and the 90-minute tour touches on some of these. We also learned about Wright’s peculiarities and the student experience at Taliesin West.    

A few miles to the west is Cosanti, where Paolo Soleri seems to have taken the architecture-in-harmony-with-nature philosophy to another level. Soleri and his wife lived at Cosanti from 1955 until his death in 2013. Our guide, Mary Hoadley, escorted us around the five acres of concrete domes and apses (half domes). In one sense, Cosanti resembles a hobbit community; in another, it’s clearly the vision of an optimistic futurist.

“Soleri was totally focused, both a narcissist and a humble, shy man, so clear in the need to find a more equitable way to house and serve people while respecting the planet,” said Hoadley, who has been with the Soleri and worked with the foundation since 1970. “I came to visit but never left. (I was) drawn in (at Arcosanti) by the effort to build a walk-through demonstration of a prototype-alternative to (suburban) sprawl.”

Visitors at Cosanti and Arcosanti, the experimental community about 70 miles north of Phoenix, find them “visually and spatially surprising and intriguing,” Hoadley said. “They appreciate Soleri’s creativity, resourcefulness, improvisation and curved lines and what beauty emerged from just playing in the dirt.”

During our visit, we headquartered at Andaz Scottsdale Resort and Bungalows (www.andazscottsdale.com), a new 23-acre property at the base of Camelback Mountain that oozes a sense that all is right with the world. The clean, mid-century modern motif tends to de-clutter the mind, and the wide expanses of lawn dotted with oversized hammocks and the sparkling pool and cabanas command guests to slow down. The Weft & Warp Art Bar and Kitchen features an exhibition kitchen with a plancha (a super-hot grill) and serves contemporary Sonoran cuisine on small, sharable plates. Artwork throughout the guesthouse, bar and restaurant illustrates the hotel’s relationship with and promotion of local artists.

Visit https://www.experiencescottsdale.com. Want to share your travels? Email [email protected] For more photos and commentary, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.