The Desert Blooms


In 1985 the city government of Scottsdale, Arizona, quite remarkably set aside one percent of its capital improvement budget to acquire and display public art. The fund this created has also helped support the magnificent, airy Museum of Contemporary Art, itself a work of art, and its neighbor the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Both are located on the parklike Civic Center Mall in the heart of the area known as Old Scottsdale. These attractions, surrounded by shops, restaurants, and more than 125 galleries, achieve thegoal so many cities are striving for these days: keeping downtown alive.

Art and Scottsdale have been tied together since the first painters drifted into the area in the early 1900s, when Scottsdale was really no more than the outskirts of Phoenix. In 1973, around the time it became a separate municipality, Scottsdale launched what became a popular continuing tradition called Art Walk. On Thursdays year-round, dozensof galleries on two thoroughfares stay open into the evening.

On the night of my visit the scene was festive, as theatrically lit palm trees and greenery poked spiky silhouettes into the darkening sky, and the gentle splash of a fountain mingled with notes from jazz groups set up on several corners. The welcoming atmosphere makes the art approachable. Youcan examine the work of a wide range of masters of Western art like the Native American artist Fritz Scholder or ponder such mysteries as the shimmering blue glass vase at least eight feet tall that I spotted in the shadows of aninterior courtyard.

In one of the galleries I noticed some unusual art lovers clustered around the cookies and punch: a dozen or so preter- naturally subdued and highly groomed teenagers, the girls in black cocktail dresses, the boys in suits. This, it turned out, was a Scottsdale social institution called a Cotillion Group, being exposed to art and manners at the same time.

I was part of a group too— journalists who were learning about Culture Quest, Scottsdale’s newest and perhaps most creative art initiative. Benefiting once again from public funding, this is a plan to lure visitors with a variety of art and cultural offerings in the area. Another entrée to Scottsdale’s art scene is provided by a company called Painted Desert Tours.They work primarily with corporate groups of 10 or more to offer visits to artists’ studios and the homes of private collectors, plus cocktail receptions at museums and chats with prominent localarchitects and gallery owners. The idea behind this and Art Walk is that such backstage social occasions will help people overcome any hesitation about wandering into a gallery or museum andengaging a stranger in talk about art.

Of the several excursions I went on, the jewel in the crown was a half-day visit to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter headquarters. This is considered one of Wright’s true masterpieces and still functions as a school for architects. My guide was the expert and outspoken Jeffrey Cook, a professor of architecture at Arizona State University. “This was a cultural center when there was no Scottsdale,” Cook remarked, explaining thatuponWright’s first visit in 1927 he fell in love with the desert.

By 1937, when Wright bought land on the lower slopes of the McDowell Mountains from the proceeds of earlier triumphs, his work had pretty much fallen out of favor. Cook explained: “He rejuvenated himself by coming to this place in the Sonoran desert, and his philosophy of organic architecture was inspired by the nature hefound here.”

Wright wrote of his fascination with “the dry, clear sun-drenched air, by the stark geometry of the mountains.” As we drove onto the property that sprawls across a mesa pocked with desert vegetation, Cook mourned the changes that man has wrought upon the landscape. “It has been slowly destroyed by the most awful houses by developers with no vision.” Wright witnessed this same march of progress, and when he spied newly installed ranks of electric power lines bordering his property,“he threw a fit,” said Cook, “reversing the orientation of his living room so he wouldn’t have to see that.”

Whatever Wright would make of today’s fashionable Scottsdale or the developmentthat crowds the once empty desert, a visit to his paradise still holds magic. I never before came closer to a Wright house than glossy spreads in books and the reconstructed room that’s on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here I wandered through a half-dozen rooms, low-slung structures luxurious in their simple fabrications of stone, canvas, and glass. I sank into surprisingly comfortable, brightly cushioned banquettes, marveled at the elegance of the partly underground dinner theater, with its ranks of stone benches and windows set high and tilted up toframe the brilliant Arizona sky.

Near the back of the theater, I’m embarrassed to admit, I imagined for a momentthat I spied Wright’s ghost, wearing his brimmed hat and half-smile. Or was it a look-alike? Perhaps, I thought, it was a Taliesin re-enactor of whom I’d be urged to ask architectural questions. Then I turned my head, and “Wright,” surely a visitor like myself, had vanished. Ghost or no, the architect’s spirit is indelible, inhabiting every corner of this place. “We have met the desert, loved it and lived with it,” he wrote. “The desert is ours.”

My day of Wright continued with a driving tour past other buildings he had designed or consulted on and ended with a visit to Vernon Swaback, a noted Scottsdale architect who had worked at Taliesin. Over coffee and pastries he explained, and to a degree defended, his view of what is appropriate in terms of building on and landscaping the desert, issuesthat consume planners and environmentalists in Phoenix and Scottsdale.

Another lively encounter involved a stop at a complex called Cattletrack Studios, harking back to its ranch origins. The adobe and wooden buildings there date from the 1920s. In the fifties they became an art colony—a significant part of Scottsdale’s flourishing cultural communityand listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Nearby are other historic adobe structures housing architects, artists, and galleries. Among these are the Allan N. Bone Gallery, which features Spanish Colonial antiques, and the Figarelli Fine Art Gallery, home to elegant works with Native American and Western themes. Although close to downtown Scottsdale, the Cattletrack cluster feels like an outpost or a secret garden. One might never noticeit, hidden as it is behind adobe walls and a scrim of cacti and shrubs.

To get better acquainted with early Scottsdale, I spent some time wandering the handful of blocks that make up Old Town. The history of white settlement in Scottsdale doesn’t go back very far, so it’s not surprising that the earliest surviving public building is less than 100 years old. This is the sturdy red-brick schoolhouse of a simple Arts and Crafts design built in 1909 that now serves as the Scottsdale Historical Museum. It is a small place with an old-fashioned air, but it lays out in brisk fashion the story of the city’s founding in 1888 by Winfield Scott, a Civil War veteran and minister (no relation to the famous general). He was drawn to this spot in part by the existence of the Salt River Canal, whose waters had long been harnessed by earlier residents, the Hohokam Indians. Scott promoted the area’s riches—the health-giving benefits of its climate and its plentiful, cheap farmland ripe for the planting of oranges and grapefruit—and he saw his community thrive.

Without the dependable water supply, I read at the museum, Scott would have had “no compelling reason to purchase section 23 under the DesertLand Act.” Today the Phoenix area is dangerously parched due to years of drought, and the Salt River is far fromdependable.

The streets around the museum have a vaguely Western feel. Two- and three-story buildings exude a little Alamo here, a little frontier town there, but most have been been altered and spruced up for the visitor. You can read markers explaining that today’s Western-wear store once housed the general store and post office and that what is now the Mexican Imports Shop was a pool hall 80 years ago. The creamy white Spanish Colonial Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church does look really old, but it turns out to date from 1933, put up by the town’s Mexican residents. Today it is home to the Scottsdale Symphony. Next door is where Cavalliere’s Blacksmith Shop, originally built of tin around 1910, was replaced10 years later by the handsome adobe structure that stands here today. It’s still owned and operated by the familywhose name it bears, a legitimate throwback to Scottsdale’s oldest West.

Despite a newly energized preservation effort, in many ways the city embraces the New West. Its resorts and residences sprout eerily green lawns and tidy suburban flower beds. There are realms of golf courses and exotic spas. Taken all together, these might tend to put the community in the forefront of the blanding of America if not for Scottsdale’s authentic engagement with art of every description. And what continues to nourish this passion is Frank Lloyd Wright’s extraordinary architectural legacy, his desert camp that looked out, as he wrote, “over the rim of the world.”

Wright spoke of the desert as “a vast battleground of Titanic natural forces.” One place near Scottsdale to experience this dynamic in all its magnificent variety is the Desert Botanical Garden. The facility,one of the finest in the world, spreads across 145 acres, 50 of which are planted with both indigenous species and examples from around the globe. The garden offers a wide array of tours and special events. “Many visitors have never seen plants like this,” remarks the director, Ken Schutz. “I often hear peoplesaythey are having an other-worldly experience.”