Discover why Frank Lloyd Wright found inspiration in these twin cities — and see the architect’s influence writ large.
At Dusk, Downtown Scottsdale’s Valley Ho Hotel looks like the sort of place Don Draper would come to get away from it all. As the sun sets, guests sip cocktails by the patio fire pit, reclining on loungers that mix retro and modem design as if they were drawn for The Jetsons, then magicked into reality.
Yet this is no ersatz recreation of ’50s cool – it’s the real thing. Opened in 1956, the Valley Ho was a magnet for the likes of Bing Crosby, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. 1/-11957 it hosted the wedding reception of Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, and it’s said that Zsa Zsa Gabor and her daughter Francesca rode horses around the hotel. Presumably not while the wedding was still going on.
“We were a resort community back then, so Hollywood stars came here, because the paparazzi wouldn’t follow them,” explains Ace Bailey, who runs an art and architecture tour in Scottsdale. ‘They could come here for “recreation” and maintain their anonymity.”
That much hasn’t changed. “To this day, the hotel will not release its current guest list to anybody except hotel staff, so it’s very discreet,” adds Bailey, before reeling off a list of contemporary Hollywood stars she’s spotted hanging around the lobby recently.
The Valley Ho is not alone. Scottsdale and Phoenix are dotted with superb examples of mid-century architecture and design, much of which displays the fingerprints of the man generally regarded as America’s greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Wright came to Phoenix in 1928 to work as a consultant on the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. A decade later, he returned to build Taliesin. West, his winter home, school and studio 26 miles from Phoenix. The real genius of Wright’s design is his ability to “bring the outside in”. In the living room, the sunlight streaming through the glass walls and translucent roof makes the garden feel like just another part of one contiguous space.
In the drafting room where Wright created perhaps his best-known work, New York’s Guggenheim Museum, a group of young architects scratches away. They are students at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and just as in Wright’s day, they are encouraged to get their hands dirty. They have to build their own rudimentary abode in the nearby desert to ensure they truly understand the basics of designing shelter.
And the students are spoilt for inspiration. Phoenix Art Museum sprawls over 26,500 square metres, housing work from the Renaissance to today. In one hallway, adults and children alike lose themselves in their distorted reflections in the polished surface of Anish Kapoor’s sculpture Upside Down, Inside Out. Further on, they wander through American art history from an iconic portrait of George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart to modernist work by Georgia O’Keeffe.
Across town at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, visitors gaze at Knight Rise, an installation by the Californian artist James Turrell that frames the sky in a disorientating fashion. Upon leaving, they’re hit by a riot of colour from graffiti artist James Marshall, also known as Dalek.
Even public buildings, like the Scottsdale City Hall and Library, are prime examples of Southwestern architecture, influenced by the clay adobe dwellings once built by the native Hopi people. “It’s minimalist, without any froufrou,” says Bailey “We’ve got great neighbourhoods full of mid-century architecture, as well as structures that are true adobe compounds. It’s quite a mix.”
The blurring of past and present is still going on back at the Valley Ho, where the drinkers are determinedly stretching the cocktail hour into the night. They’ve moved indoors to sit beneath concrete block walls that show Frank Lloyd Wright’s undying influence. While they toast to the future, the music in the air is pure Rat Pack.
- Hotel Valley Ho in downtown Scottsdale has 241 generously-sized guest rooms featuring mid-century-meets-modern design, a spa and two pools.
- Half an hour from downtown Scottsdale, Taliesin West can be viewed only as part of a guided tour. Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art is in the city’s old town, while the Phoenix Art Museum is on North Central Avenue. Ace Bailey offers art and architecture tours of Scottsdale through Ultimate Art and Cultural Tours.