Gimme Shelter- A Southwest Road Trip : Arizona

My navigator, a friendly sounding woman housed within my I-Phone, had told me my destination was on the left. I looked………and it was a 7-11. I had already gotten lost once in the Phoenix sprawl, and this was definitely not the library I was looking for. She had directed me to a branch library, and while clearly my fault, my stress level had risen driving in this unfamiliar and sprawling city, so I blamed her. I pondered going in for a slurpee, but demurred.

I like road trips, and if you are a regular reader, (as sparse as the posts have been) , you may have picked up on that. Recently, I found myself with a chance to take one more.  The  trip would take me from home in Palm Springs, eventually landing in Albuquerque, with many stops along the way. This is Part 1- Arizona. I’ll follow with the second part on New Mexico in the next few weeks.


For me this desert road trip, was to serve as a mile post, marking change in my life. Visits to architectural icons as well as much hiking. But first and foremost , it conjured tearing down wide open roads at sunset, and not being stuck in traffic on a 100 degree morning. But there I was. Eventually, I got it straightened out, and I found my first destination. This trip was going to be a trip backwards in time, so I was starting with a building built circa 1995, and working backwards.

Burton Barr Public Library


The main library was designed by local Architects Will Bruder and Wendell Burdette. I resisted the temptation to immediately go inside on this hot morning, and as it would turn out, with good cause, because I found the exterior most interesting. Basically, the building is a box, with solid gently bowed copper sheathed walls facing east and west, and full height glazing north and south. This is a view of the north facade, one that features fabric sails that deflect the early morning or evening summer light. The south elevation is also glazed, but it features operable louvers that were understandably closed.


The copper rainscreen on the east and west facades conceals many of the support spaces for the building, which leaves the center of the floor plates to be very open, the city can see in, and occupants can see the city. I great idea, and  this happens at night:


 The building forms were inspired by the landscape, the scale and color does indeed remind one of the scale and color of buttes and canyons, walking along this side at least. And the simplicity of the forms underline its publicness- it does not look like an office building, and it expresses clearly its attempt at forward thinking sustainability which I’ll get to in a minute.


So yeah, at this point, I guess I’ll take it over another library built around the same time in another southwesternish city:


Inside, one enters a crevice underneath the building, a shallow and compressed space, that eventually releases you into what is called the crystal canyon, a five story vertical space.


At the bottom of the “canyon”, a cooling pond supposedly cools air drawn from the crevice, and send sit up to vents at the roof. The building was very comfortable, but I undersatnd the automatic operable louvers on the south side never worked properly, so there was some serious retrofitting- so ideal and reality have diverged.



Of course, one of the most appealing, and occasionally disarming , aspects to a public library, is well, its publicness. It is for one and all. And so I saw, as always, kids doing research or getting inspired, a senior sitting by the pool reading, a guy watching porn, and someone else, well, bathing. And on the top floor, I looked forward to seeing the capper, a huge reading room under the tensile structure, always my favorite feature of a good library. The space was cavernous, and left me wanting:


Yes, it was large, but so cold. I admired the technical , the space planning, and the exterior moves in this building very much. But I wanted my cake too, I wanted a reading room that felt more like this :


And less like a dirigible hangar. But that’s me.

Taliesen West

My next stop was the legendary Taliesen West, in Scottsdale.  Frank Lloyd Wright, his life and career  a mess, came west in the early 30’s to start an Architecture school. And he found a piece of pristeen desert land far from Phoenix to build his dream, a little desert utopia and laboratory.



Visiting Taliesen means taking a tour, and tours, as we know, can run the gamut. This one was ok, but if you’ve been to tours at Wright buildings, you know that he can inspire a rather beatific reverence from his disciples, and this one was no exception. According to this guide, you would believe his feet never touched the ground. I mean look at the crew at his side:


Taliesen means shining brow in Welsh, and this was chosen to reflect the siting of the building- like a brow on a pace, below the top- with views TO the top as well as the valley below. We were guided through the grounds, and again I recognized that Wright had a real genius for siting buildings, as well as planning the sequences for arriving and moving through space. Everything was choreographed.




By now, MY Welsh brow was getting hot, and we moved inside. I sat my square ass on a hexagonal chair, and we were regaled with tales of the Wrights, Frank and his now third wife Ogilvanna; organized and led every aspect of the student experience at Taliesen.


Students were told to bring a sleeping bag and a tuxedo to the school. They would sleep in tents outside, work in the studio, help build buildings, and finally, attend elegant Saturday night dinners and cultural presentations- in tuxedos. I regarded the piano near where I sat, and in this space where every last fragment had been designed by the master, this beautiful old Steinway looked ridiculously out-of-place. We were told Oglivanna was the resident matchmaker, lording it would seem over every last detail.

This really was a camp in the desert, in fact, initially the place had no windows, though eventually, even the colossally stubborn Wright acknowledged this didn’t work. My shining brow now had several welts on it as we ended at the drafting room- Wright feeling tall ceilings were a waste of material. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to go to school here; broiling in the mid-spring heat of the drafting room- having to explain to Mr. Wright that the mark on my trace he was apoplectic over  was actually a recently expired cricket.


And what would Wright think of his school now. We saw computers on the desks, and we saw the endless and awful Phoenix sprawl now up to the compound grounds. When President Truman announced the government was sending huge power lines down the valley nearby, Wright re-planned the complex to look away from the monstrosoties, and back towards the mountain above the brow. I would expect there would be more of that- raising the walls to maintain the wholeness of his desert utopia, keeping out all that would intrude.

But watch your head.


After a visit to Will Bruder’s very fine Deer Valley Rock Art Center, I was finally released from Phoenix, and the road opened up. My next stop was Arcosanti, to regard this man’s vision of a desert utopia:


The man was Italian-American Architect Paolo Soleri, (who just passed away earlier this year), and his vision was a merging of Architecture and Ecology- which would result in “Arcology”, an evironmentally sustainable and socially equitable community integrated with its desert environment. It was planned as a community for 5,000:

Arcosanti OLD 008

It was begun in 1970; hard after the idealist 60’s and at the dawn of the environmental movement. It would be built by volunteers, and much of what was built was built during this decade. An average of 100 or so people, more early on, were there. It kind of took off, and became a place of education, hands-on experience, and increasingly  a host for fund-raising music events. These grew larger, culminating in an 1978 concert that attracted over 15,000 people, well more than they had before. Tragically, a fire started in a field where the many cars were parked, and eventually 180 cars were engulfed. 5240222657_7dc269b8d8_o

And that changed a lot. Lawsuits were filed, and it apparently took Arcosanti nearly 30 years to pay off those debts. With this, and maybe , the idealism of the 70’s giving way to the 80’s and 90’s, the progress slowed. Here’s a view of Arcosanti up to the present.


So yeah, they’ve got a ways to go.  Like Taliesen, Arcosanti can only be seen on a tour, and again, off I went with a very small group that had found their way to this remote outpost. A volunteer and resident took us on a tour. There is a smaller group that stays and works there now. Work does continue on the complex, but it seemed  a lot of the work is devoted to  the production of Soleri’s famous bells and chimes, an operation he devised to raise money through their sale.

The workshops are housed in these wonderful apses that face a canyon. They were well designed- shading workers from the summer heat, but letting sun all the way in during the winter months.




The complex has aged, and in places looked quite frayed. Some of it clearly needs maintenance. It felt like a commune, a bit ragged in spots, but honestly, unlike the Taliesen tour, this felt more real. The guide talked candidly of the difficult past here, almost apologetically about the lack of recent progress, but also optimistic about the next bit of construction (greenhouses). “And we’re going to try, if we can get some money, to build another story of apartments here………….. but its tough” . No, no one walked on water here.


There was faint strains of music coming from various locations, and on this windy day,there was a cacophony from Soleri’s bells . We made our way to a final apse, a space for community gathering. A performance group from South America was practicing for an upcoming event here in a few weeks. On stilts, the music wafting in the now strong wind, dancing in the shadow of the apse- a dream interrupted I suppose, it was, in that moment, incredibly beautiful.


I spoke with a  young Architecture student from Italy, who was mesmerized, and eventually peeled off to  inquire about how she could come and stay here. Meanwhile, I walked out and down the canyon, to regard the complex from afar. I could still here the bells, lightly tinkling in the wind.

I was now officially far from home, and on the road.

On The Road

So often on these trips, the things you most anticipate seeing , (and perhaps its just that heightened expectation), leave you wanting; but those that are thrown in because they’re on the way leave more of a mark. That would be the case time and time again on this trip. As I felt the welt on my forehead from Taliesen, I realized I probably was going to be more likely to remember my  afternoon at Arcosanti. Likewise ahead, I had looked forward to hiking in Sedona the next day, but was not at all prepared for the incredible beauty of the Chapel of the Holy Cross at sunset. A perfect melding of a building to its landscape.


And the landscape here is truly overwhelming, subsuming all in its shadows. Cathedrals themselves.



The next day I headed east towards New Mexico and Chapter 2, and I was finally out on those western roads that I love – the pavement, the plains, and my thoughts on past and what lies ahead.


I stopped for gas on old Route 66 in Holbrook, and there was one last opportunity to enjoy another desert icon, the roadside shelter for the weary traveler. This would serve as a portent for the next few days that would spent on Native land, though the Wigwam was clearly taking a more whimsical view of that culture. Route 66’s glory days were long behind her, but not completely. Again, in the wind, as at Arcosanti, the past embraced the present , though this time, instead of music , the offering was a night in teepee. Ah the west.


2 thoughts on “Gimme Shelter- A Southwest Road Trip : Arizona

  1. Thank you for letting us join you on this journey. So lyrical, ruminative, honest and open to the experience. I learn a lot reading you and appreciate your keen eye. I look forward to this as part of a book some day!

  2. Wonderful observations as usual. I did an Arcosanti workshop back in 1980 and it is what spurred me to study architecture along with FLW. I was surprised Paolo was still alive and then saddened at his passing. Hope you make it to Tucson, it makes up for alot of Phoenix. Love the wigwam village.

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