Rick D'Elia/Corbis
Jeff Ficker
December 30, 2014

You would think that when Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s most celebrated architect, moved to Scottsdale in the 1930s that the city would become a bastion for smart, innovative design. Alas, that was not the case. And though the 1950s and ’60s produced some midcentury gems, much of this fast-growing city was blanketed by cheap, mass-produced strip malls and track homes influenced by Midwestern transplants who expected big ranch homes and green lawns. A revolution, though, happened in the 21st century. Residents re-embraced the desert, and architects found inspiration in the landscape, integrating indoor/outdoor spaces and incorporating Arizona’s brilliant light into their designs. This new school of architecture, dubbed Desert Modernism, can be traced back to Wright’s influence, as well as to the traditional building techniques Native Americans have been using for centuries, such as using local materials that can weather this harsh climate. The buildings below best exemplify this synthesis of architecture and the desert. 

Taliesin West

Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home set the bar for bold, innovative design that complemented rather than fought its desert environment. Wright employed a series of strategies to achieve this extraordinary feat, from using building materials straight from the desert floor to diffusing sunlight through canvas ceilings and blending indoor and outdoor spaces. Southwestern architects are still taking their cues from it. 

Scottsdale Public Library, Arabian Branch

Inspired by the deep, narrow ravines of Arizona’s slot canyons, this outpost of the Scottsdale Public Library looks as though it emerged fully formed from the desert floor. The steeply angled walls of rusted weathered steel and glass surround a central desert courtyard, filling the reading rooms and public spaces with light. 

Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

It’s amazing what a little makeover can do. Desert modernist architect Will Bruder masterfully transformed this former movie theater into a sleek home for contemporary art. From the “eggplant gray” exterior reminiscent of the nearby McDowell Mountain Range to exposed-beam galleries, the building is a striking home the changing lineup of paintings, sculpture and mixed-media work.

Consanti

Phoenix Art Museum

Two ambitious expansions have transformed the museum into a showpiece of Desert Modernism. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the architects behind the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, blended indoor and outdoor spaces, adding a new a sculpture garden and a dramatic, glass-enclosed lobby with a 40-foot cantilevered entry that creates a shaded “outdoor room.” 

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