So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright*

Michelle’s email broadcast this week poking fun at me for supporting Airpark development generated some interesting feedback from behind-the-scenes…mostly to the effect that readers were sincerely echoing her feigned surprise that I support ANY development.

One reader actually stated “Armageddon must be near!”

Obviously, the developers whose projects I have opposed have been successful at painting me as “anti-development,” as though I’d prefer Scottsdale to revert back to the horse-and-buggy days. As this is not the case, I clearly have not done a good job of articulating what I think is “good” development.

So I’ll take a stab at it here.

Williams Gateway Airport | Wikipedia

As a kid, I wanted to be an architect. But I got ‘sidetracked’ into the less artistic field of aerospace engineering, pursuing my career as an Air Force Pilot. While I was stationed at Williams AFB (now Gateway Airport), one of my first sightseeing excursions in the Sonoran Desert was to Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, Taliesin West.

Well, I was disappointed.

Taliesin West | Scottsdale CVB

You see, as a kid I envisioned “good” architecture to be “big” architecture. I thought bold, iconic, visionary  statements in concrete and steel should stand out. Taliesin West did not, and I was unimpressed.

But that was then.

Scottsdale Waterfront |

Ironically, years later, the very project that sparked my interest in development in Scottsdale was the Waterfront Towers. They are bold and they stand out…but they just don’t fit.

In my opinion, they don’t belong in Scottsdale.

You see, I had grown to appreciate about Scottsdale what Frank Lloyd Wright expressed via his original Taliesin in Wisconsin: That “good” development proceeds in harmony with its context.

Taliesin | Wikipedia

The word “taliesin” is from the Welsh word for “bright brow;” “brow” being the projecting edge of a hill. As in, NOT the top of the hill. In Wright’s own words about his original Taliesin in Wisconsin, constructing on the brow of the hill made the structures appear to be, “…not on the land, but of the land.”

Even though Taliesin and Taliesin West were both constructed in relatively rural settings, the same principles of contextual design applies in suburban settings like Downtown Scottsdale. Previous Scottsdale administrations did a pretty good job of putting metrics to this otherwise artistic notion. These metrics are described by terms like setback (distance from the street), stepback (greater setback of upper floors), floor area ratio (amount of developed square footage allowed for a given lot square footage), and buffering (transition areas between low-intensity uses like residential and higher intensities like commercial and retail). These concepts translate to greater open space, less visual impact, and a distinctive physical character…all the things that make Scottsdale so attractive to tourists AND to residents.

So, what kind of development do I support?

I support development that follows the “rules” laid out in our well-crafted zoning ordinance, itself a product of a well-thought-out General Plan.

Development that seeks to exploit loopholes in – or outright ignore – the zoning code via “incentives” and special exceptions will never get my support.

Henkel Building |

Such projects include the apparently-now-defunct Solis, Blue Sky, X Lofts, and many other recently approved projects. The antithesis of contextual design is the Henkel Building at Scottsdale Road and Loop 101, ironically designed by a student of Wright’s: Will Bruder. This project was widely criticized for lack of contextual consideration.

Optima Camelview

One of the best examples of a “good”  project is actually one that I initially opposed: the award-winning Optima Camelview. I’m still not thrilled with the height of the project, but architect David Hovey’s design is very good. The setback and stepbacks of the upper floors show how you can make a larger project look less massive. The extensive use of glass reflects a lot of the sky back to the observer, so that the buildings actually appear see-through.

A really good example of “good” development and “bad” development is the juxtaposition of Kierland and the Scottsdale Quarter. Kierland has a lot of setback and looks very low-scale by comparison to the Scottsdale Quarter’s massive street front appearance.

I firmly believe that it is a mistake to “go big” in Downtown or anywhere else in Scottsdale. But Optima is a good example of how big can be “less bad.”

Here are some more examples of these concepts from Source and Design and from the Scottsdale CVB’s “Architecture Guide.” I don’t agree with all the selections, but I think you’ll get the point.

“Development” is easy to do, especially if you throw the rulebook out the window. Good development that considers context (both physical AND historic) requires much greater intelligence, in my opinion.

Should Scottsdale be about “easy” development, or should it be about “intelligent” development? I’m sincerely interested in what you think.

*Editor’s note: ‘So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright’ is a Simon & Garfunkel hit that was rumored to be their break-up song. Art Garfunkel studied architecture before meeting Paul Simon and eventually creating some of the best music ever made. Did I just date myself? I think I did.  -M.A.


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    1. Another fan! And thank goodness it’s only a song. If I didn’t have the freedom to change my point of view I’d likely still consider fast motorcycles and an extensive shoe selection as my highest priorities. Ah, youth!

  1. Spot on John, it seems more and more the lessons of and value of history are forgotten. Sure it’s great to have technology and architecture move on, but could not at the expense of what we have come to know over the years is valuable. The reason some of the big names in architecture became “big” was they made a difference philosophically as well as structurally. The notion of working in harmony with the surroundings is solid and should be respected. Better is not always bigger.

  2. Hi John!

    Some good points, but FLLW also designed to be noticed and oten vertically. Ever been to Falling Water? He built it over the objection of the Kaufman family directly on top of the water falls, not below or beside it. Then there is the Johnson Wax high rise Building, the Guggenheim and even the Spire at our very own corner of FLLW Blvd and Scottsdale Rd.

    Optima is a brillant achievment and makes height beautiful without any reservation. The Waterfront is big, but without it, there would not be over 5 million in Public Art and canal bank improvements that we have worked on for over 20 years. Meanwhile Fred Unger’s South Bank project is low rise and continues to struggle.

    Projects must pencil profitably and compromise must often be reached on verticals to create needed returns. To protect & preserve low profile Old Town, the Arts & Shopping Districts, Scottsdale needs urban residential growth. Maybe Blue Sky is toooo high, but it is also going to be home to many new downtowners. Sited north of Camelback, it is in context of its footprint, just need to make sure it is only as high as needed and not any more. Residential is the right end use for the land.

    Finally, good development is mostly about context and you are right, the Henkel HQ is an architectural embarrassment.

    1. Tall can be in context, and I think Johnson Wax and the G are good examples of that. Downtown Phoenix and Mill Avenue are also good examples…but not Downtown Scottsdale which is fundamentally different.

      I think a spire is a fundamentally different structure, too. Yes it is tall, but it doesn’t block out the views of the surrounding landscape, nor does it cast a significant shadow.

      Sure projects have to “pencil,” but I disagree with the notion that they have to be tall to pencil. The only reason nothing was built on the Waterfront site for so many years was the threat of condemnation from the slum-and-blight “redevelopment district” designation (removed only the night of the Waterfront approval and only with threat of legal action from Institute for Justice).

      The landowners there were convinced from watching a weak mayor and city council that they could get the height concessions if they waited long enough and pushed hard enough. Virtually anything constructed on that site could have made money. In fact, John Berry himself said that the developer’s profit was in the retail NOT in the towers!

      Plus, one of the great promises of the residential component was sure-fire viability for projects like Unger’s…which itself represents a perversion of the zoning laws in that he was allowed to measure height from the canal bank rather than the curb.

      Your comments about Falling Water are interesting. I would agree that it shouldn’t have been over the falls…but I find it intriguing that this is considered Wright’s signature piece…though I’m not sure he would have considered it such.

  3. John, I’m afraid that you are a kind of visionary when it comes to your idea of what should and shouldn’t fit. The kind of visionary you are is unfortunately a limited visionary.

    Glad you stuck with planes and didn’t aspire to become a great architect. I’m afraid that you would have become the king of cookie cutter. Great cities of the world feature the diversity you seem so opposed to.

    Love this website and the columns are truly great. Keep up the good work but please, please stay away from drafting tables.

    Mike Levy.

    1. You may be right, Mike, but show me the architecture in the Waterfront Towers, Blue Sky, Am Trust Building, Solis, etc. All absolutely forgettable. Tall does not always equal good, and I’d venture to say it is the exception that tall buildings are great architecture.

      Any dummy can build a tall building, but there are very few people who can build a great building. I’m just saying that this being Scottsdale, we ought to demand better…not necessarily taller.

  4. Personally, I prefer “rawhide” architecture! Seriously, no one but urban planners with visions of lite rail are in favor of high rise apartments downtown. Stay out of Scottsdale. Dream your big dreams in Phoenix or L.A.

  5. Two comments:

    CamelView was a “monstrosity’ in my opinion when first started. But now with the foliage it is quite nice.

    When I first visited Talliesin West, I was disappointed and at the same time reminded of one of his homes I had visited in Minnesota. Both buildings seem to have no regard for energy efficiency or creature comfort. The windows were mostly mismatched with the accompanying openings. This made for extraordinarily high energy bills. The fixed in place ‘furniture’ was uncomfortable and totally unadaptable to conversations that shifted at times. The home did blend in to the trees and nearby pond, however.

    Glenn Smith

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