You’ve probably had the privilege of traveling through the mind and spirit of Bennie M. Gonzales many times, and for many years. You just never knew you were.
The renowned Arizona architect died Nov. 20 in Nogales. He was 84.
His local works include Scottsdale City Hall, the Civic Center Library, the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, the former Armour-Dial building on Scottsdale Road and Paradise Valley’s Christ Church of the Ascension and Gloria Del Lutheran Church.
If you ever had dinner or a drink at the Cottonwoods hotel, that hotel was his design. Or if you’ve been to the Heard Museum in midtown Phoenix — the Valley’s cathedral of everything Southwestern — and enjoyed its extended premises, you were passing through the Southwest as Bennie Gonzales saw it.
He had won at least 131 different design awards, including several from the American Institute of Architects, his son, Barney “B.J.” Gonzales said Thursday, who said his father never dwelled on things like that. That was the past, he said, and Gonzales was always looking ahead.
“The American Institute of Architects really liked him because he wasn’t always saying, ‘My stuff is the greatest.’ He respected architecture. He was a true craftsman,” B.J. Gonzales said.
An actual craftsman, it turns out. Bennie Gonzales paid his way through college as a cabinet maker, his son said.
“He knew what contractors were capable of, because he did that himself. That’s why he related to artists and contractors, big and small ones, so well, because that was what he did for a living,” said B.J. Gonzales, 52, who had worked with his father for several years.
The elder Gonzales tapped students at Taliesin West, preeminent American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter studio, to work on the building crews constructing his designs. “When they weren’t drawing, they were building,” B.J. Gonzales said.
Before that, Vernon Swaback was a Taliesin West student who worked with Wright in the last few years before Wright’s death in 1959.
Swaback, a longtime Scottsdale architect whose work B.J. Gonzales said his father admired, said Thursday that he remembered Bennie Gonzales making his presentation to city officials in hopes of getting to design the Scottsdale City Hall.
“I was still with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation,” Swaback said of that day in the mid-1960s. “And Bennie followed the foundation’s presentations. So he gets up and he says, ‘Aw, shucks. I kind of feel like a sandlot baseball player coming up to bat right after Babe Ruth.’ “
“That really characterized the way Bennie conducted himself. He did amazing things, and he did them just absolutely independently,” Swaback said.
Unlike many other architects of his time, who became Wright imitators or who imitated the glass-block look of other architects, Gonzales went his own way, Swaback said.
“His view, his look on the world of architecture was so totally his own,” Swaback said.
Gonzales faced down and made the Bambino of architecture — Wright’s Taliesin West — blink. Gonzales won the contract.
City Hall and the adjacent Civic Center Library — an excellent example of Gonzales’ breakaway from traditional architectural thinking of the mid-20th-century — incorporates the thick adobe walls of the Mexican culture.
Its “kiva,” from the Hopi term for open-pit gathering space, remains today the Scottsdale City Council’s unique meeting place, with no walls or doors separating it from surrounding city offices.
Both buildings opened in 1968. To this day it is they, not the tan ocean, the red- and sandstone-tiled panorama of the city’s north, which architecturally define Scottsdale.
Swaback said that Wright said to distinguish between the beautiful and the merely curious. Gonzales did that by “raising the bar of indigenous design.”
Bennie Gonzales differed from Wright, his son said, in that he believed that to properly design Arizona buildings, you had to live here all year and adapt to the elements.
This was the source of Bennie Gonzales’ use of adobe to help keep his buildings cooler.
Wright famously spent winters in Scottsdale, returning annually to Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis., for the summer.
Scottsdale’s buildings pay silent tribute to Gonzales each time people see them, enter them, use them.
But Swaback said he believes that the city should pay a more substantial tribute to Gonzales as it already has with two other famous architects with long associations with this community.
“We have named a street after Frank Lloyd Wright, Paolo Soleri will have his bridge,” Swaback said. “The city of Scottsdale should figure out a way to honor itself by honoring Bennie.”