A Day Exploring the Architecture of Phoenix and Scottsdale

Don't miss a chance to tour the groundbreaking architecture of these Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe buildings.

Welcome to the beautiful Sonoran Desert. Admire the cacti and the roadside wildflowers, and inhale the warm, dry air. Now let’s go look at some buildings! Several groundbreaking architects have lived in and left their marks on the Valley of the Sun. Any self-identifying architecture buff could have a field day—or two, or three—walking up to and into some of their edifices.

For the sake of efficiency (itself an architectural tenet), the following itineraries are arranged to keep you in one Valley city per day. But you could elect to design your own tour (how architectural of you) by skimming all cities and extracting a single architect to shadow; around here one city leads easily to another.

Exploring the Architecture of Scottsdale

Paolo Soleri (1919-2013) studied and sketched bridges for decades but only got to see one built in his lifetime, over the canal that runs diagonally through downtown Scottsdale. Soleri Bridge (2010) is 27 feet wide at one end, 18 at the other, and is braced by 64-foot pylons that conspire to cast a telltale dagger of sunlight on equinoxes and solstices.

The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, also downtown, offers evidence of a minimum of two living builders: Phoenix-based Will Bruder reinvented the shell of the building itself from a small cineplex, and Flagstaff-based James Turrell installed one of his open-topped “skyspaces” to the south end. Follow an indoor/outdoor SMoCA visit with a minute-long stroll to AZ 88 for lunch; the restaurant is a polished glass box staffed by white-shirted, black-tied experts in burgers, waffle fries and icy, brimming martinis.

Taliesin West

Spend the afternoon at Taliesin West, the north-Scottsdale home of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) and a continuing campus for architectural apprentices of Wright’s aesthetics. A variety of superbly narrated walking tours of educational and recreational buildings is available every day; seasonally (i.e. right now), a tour of student-built shelters on Taliesin’s mountainside is a special treat. Round out the afternoon of stark angles and cantilevered roofs with dinner at The Greene House—California cuisine inside a Craftsman-style bungalow. Then go gaze at the soaring blue illuminated spire on the southeast corner of Scottsdale Road and Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard. It’s a posthumous project from a previously unrealized Wright sketch.

The Architecture of Phoenix

Soleri’s Cosanti encampment

Start your Phoenix-focused day in the posh suburb of Paradise Valley, where Paolo Soleri kept a modest home called Cosanti for experimenting with small-scale arcs and breezeways, teaching apprentices and supervising the production of artist-made windbells that are still a source of funding for the Cosanti Foundation today. View sketches and scale models that Soleri noodled with in his pursuit of an antidote to urban sprawl, and wander the courtyard to select a bell to take home. If you have time for a road trip, drive an hour north of Phoenix to visit Arcosanti, Soleri’s larger-scale architectural experiment.

Then, leave the trees of suburbia for the skyscrapers of downtown Phoenix, where Burton Barr Central Library showcases Will Bruder’s handiwork from 1995, including Teflon shades, copper facings, thermal-mass walls and see-through elevators. Architectural lunch options: The Henry, which was named after a faucet fixture; the original Postino, inside a former post office; or Timo, inside a decommissioned firehouse.

Do a drive-by of First Christian Church; it was built from 1971-1973 using plans Frank Lloyd Wright had drawn with another site in mind back in 1949. Take a nature walk at Deer Valley Rock Art Center after passing through its Will Bruder-designed welcome center. Then dust off/fix your makeup, and stride confidently into the elegant Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Albert Chase McArthur. Wrightean motifs are many: stained glass in a boxes-and-circles pattern in the lobby, concrete blocks in distinctive geometric patterns instead of crown moulding, and signature sprite statues in the garden. Dine finely at Wright’s, one of the on-property restaurants. Save nightcap honors for the lounge at The Wrigley Mansion (visible from the Biltmore’s valet circle, midway up the adjacent hill). The opulent 1932 house was home to gum guy William Wrigley Jr. and, later, meat heir Geordie Hormel, and now operates as a supper club and wedding site.

The Architectural Tour of Tempe

See-for-free a James Turrell skyspace that was built on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus in 2012; you’ll probably just have to pay a buck or two to stow your car in the adjacent Rural Road/Terrace Avenue garage—it being campus and all. While SMoCA’s Turrell skyspace is smooth and curvaceous, this one’s boxy, rigid and full of puzzling optical illusions. For curvy architecture of note in Tempe, ogle ASU Gammage, the round, carousel-looking auditorium Frank Lloyd Wright designed but didn’t live to see completed; it’s currently celebrating its 50th season of Broadway and concert programming. 

Tempe Center for the Arts

Will Bruder’s 2005 residential/commercial development west of campus, The Vale, is colorful and worth a passing glance. Then hit the Mill Avenue district to see city offices in an inverted-pyramid building, and settle into an artistically composed bowl of ramen for lunch at Umami. Finally, go toward an unexpected and impressive body of water in the middle of our desert. Tempe Town Lake itself is a feat of human engineering: a two-mile-long, spring-fed, inflatable-dammed occupant of a historic but dry riverbed. Tempe Center for the Arts, on the south bank near the lake’s west end, is a jaunty, curious building, and wildly varying styles of bridges over the lake—wooden trestle to electric light rail—form a visual timeline of the city’s growth.