October 19, 2004
Frank Lloyd Wright’s lesson on ecologically sensitive building in the Sonoran Desert is finally taking hold after more than half a century, say local architects and environmentalists.
Taliesin West, the studio and residential enclave Wright began building in the late 1930s below Scottsdale’s McDowell Mountains, remains a quintessential demonstration of architecture that adapts creatively and with practical efficiency to its natural habitat, said Scottsdale architect Vernon Swaback, who spent two decades studying and working there.
Swaback will be among those leading a four-day symposium at Taliesin West starting Wednesday titled "Building in Harmony With Nature.’’ Its aim is to re-examine Wright’s concepts and what they offer to guide the Valley as it continues growing into an urban and suburban metropolis.
"We have a long way to go in reaching Wright’s ideal,’’ Swaback said.
But optimism is the thrust of the symposium.
Development is moving in a trend away from the "throwaway society" approach that characterized much of the building in the Valley for decades, and toward a focus on durability, conservation of resources and quality of life, he said.
From a design standpoint, "we’ve turned a corner from the days when we were trying to re-create the Midwest,’’ said J.T. Elbracht, an architect and former member of Scottsdale’s Development Review Board who will join the Taliesin West event.
"It’s a mind-set different from 50 years ago. . . . We value our mountains more. There’s more respect for the natural character of the land,’’ Elbracht said.
Scottsdale’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Ordinance, with its preservationminded building and design regulations, shows "a sincere effort to take us in the direction of Wright’s ideas,’’ said Doug Sydnor, head of the American Institute of Architects’ north East Valley section and founding chairman of Scottsdale’s Historic Preservation Commission.
Sydnor and other architects emphasize that building in accord with nature doesn’t necessarily mean mimicking the look or palette of natural scenery or rigidly conformist notions about what’s appropriate desert architecture.
The movement is more about developing sustainable communities than building big, expensive houses whose owners can afford custom architecture, solar-powered systems or other energy-efficient technology.
"Wright didn’t have any money when he built Taliesin West, and he still did something ground-breaking. . . . Money isn’t the sole factor. It’s about having vision and being innovative," Elbracht said.
Tony Nelssen was at the forefront of a group called the Great Sonoran that lobbied for regulations and design guidelines to encourage environmentally friendly development in north Scottsdale. Some of the group’s ideas ended up in Scottsdale’s revised general plan.
There’s been progress in newly developing areas of the north East Valley, but the big challenge will be incorporating the concepts into older areas, Nelssen said.
"We need the same intensity of environmental thinking applied to (urban) infill and redevelopment in the places that were first built up 50 years ago,’’ he said.
Frank Lloyd Wright would agree, Swaback said.
Building in harmony with nature "is a community thing, not an individual thing. . . . When Wright used the word ‘nature,’ he wasn’t just talking about trees and plants. He meant the nature of the way things work and what makes a building or a community a good experience for people,’’ he said.
Taliesin West’s value as more than a popular local tourist attraction will hinge on how effectively it can promote that philosophy as a standard for the Valley’s growth, he said.