Scottsdale Arizona is Phoenix’s posh neighbor, dotted with gated communities, resorts, spas and fancy hotels. While Arizona, in general, remains best known for retirees, a new generation is taking up residence in the area, drawn there not for golfing but for art, architecture and design. These design enthusiasts are taking note because of the legacy of two giants of architecture—Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri. The two rivals represent a yin and yang of design philosophies. Their apprentice compounds—Wright’s fastidious Taliesin West and Soleri’s chaotic Cosanti—are magnets for a revival in interest in the area’s older homes and buildings, especially mid-century projects from the 1940s to ‘60s. Scottsdale’s stuffy reputation is giving way to a second look from a younger generation and the approaching fall weather makes for the perfect time to explore the new scene. 

Taliesin West: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Legacy

Frank Lloyd Wright Scottsdale

Frank Lloyd Wright came to Arizona in the 1930s to create a space where he could work in peace and train his apprentices. He built Taliesin West (named in concert with his Wisconsin workshop Taliesin) in what was then the middle of nowhere­­—26 miles from Phoenix. Wright and his students built everything at Taliesin West by hand, using materials that could be harvested from the surrounding desert all to the end of working with, instead of against, the terrain. “There were simple characteristic silhouettes to go by, tremendous drifts and heaps of sunburned desert rocks were nearby to be used,” Wright said. “We got it all together with the landscape.”

Today Taliesin West still trains architecture students in Wright’s methods, which, in a tradition dating back to the school’s earliest days, requires students to live in a tent in the desert and design and build their own desert shelters to live in. Wright was a madman for order and this National Historic Landmark is a marvel of thoughtful design and building. Not a blade of grass is out of place. The site offers tours daily.

Wright’s Rival

Frank Lloyd Wright Scottsdale

If Frank Lloyd Wright was a madman for order, Paolo Soleri was just plainly a madman. Although his reputation has recently been tarnished by posthumous allegations of sexual abuse, Soleri’s work remains an important part of design history. The Italian architecture student came to Taliesin West in 1946, to study among Wright’s apprentices. But his wild nature, manic energy and boundary-pushing designs didn’t mesh with the monastic environment at Taliesin. He was also challenging Wright on the national stage, winning exhibitions in New York and making the cover of the Rolling Stone of architecture, Architectural Digest. And, although there is no definitive account of why Soleri was expelled from Taliesin West, Claire Carter, the curator at The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, who has studied Soleri’s career extensively, believes the Italian’s splashy success in New York was a threat to Wright’s near-domination of the American architectural scene. “Soleri was brash, cocky and his work was getting notice in important circles,” she says. “I suspect that wasn’t to Mr. Wright’s liking.” Whatever the reason, Soleri left Taliesin for Italy in 1950. He could not, however, just let things lie. He returned to Arizona in 1956 to establish his own rival school and workshop, which he called Cosanti . Cosanti remains a working workshop where apprentices fire Soleri’s Cosanti Bells, elaborate bronze or ceramic wind chimes, to help fund the continued work on Soleri’s masterwork Arcosanti (see sidebar). Where Taliesin West is all right angles (Wright angles?), Cosanti is wild and organic. He pioneered a technique of building up huge mounds of desert silt, covering them in concrete and digging out the dirt, leaving behind a dome structure that inspired George Lucas’ design of the Skywalker Ranch in the opening scenes of Star Wars. Tours are offered Monday through Saturday.

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Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh is Salt Lake magazine's Editor. He covers culture, history, the outdoors and whatever needs a look. Jeremy is also the author of the book "100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die" and the co-author of the history, culture and urban legend guidebook "Secret Salt Lake."