Thursday, February 6, 2014

Phoenix: living with or against nature

My trip to Phoenix left me with a lot to think about; architecturally that is! Of course my visit to Taliesin West had a lot to do with this; Frank Lloyd Wright's summer camp and architectural school. When an architect or builder decides to build a house, fundamental decisions are made as to how one approaches the land or nature as I'll call it. Are you with it or against?
In the top photo is a very glamorous example of going against nature The house is walled in, keeping the desert nature out as well as any desert critters I would suppose.  Everything inside the compound is presumably lush and green as if in Connecticut. This is not exactly what I'd call 'embracing nature' or what is natural to the area.  Around sprawling Phoenix (why must they live so FAR apart?) one sees the opposite example in rather comic ways such as decorating ones lawn with a rusty tractor and overgrown cactus.
You know I'm a classicist but modern architecture works so well in the desert landscape. I love how this very modern house seems to rise out of the rocky hillside. In the low hills surrounding Phoenix one has wonderful (if somewhat smoggy) views of the city and desert plains while at the same time affording romantic views up into the fabulous mountains and hills.
To my eastern eyes already accustomed to our frigid gray winter these exotic landscapes were a joy; Reddish soil, green cactus and interesting plants not to mention the wonderfully warm dry air.
It was rather hard to judge which were good neighborhoods and which were poorer ones as the city suffers from a block to block character which stretches off rather endlessly into the sunset. At the foothills of the mountains north of the city were some of the more interesting gardens and houses and so I'll assume that these were among the more affluent neighborhoods of the city.  How people chose to live here was interesting.
Located at the foot of the mountains one has scenic views upwards while views south sloped towards the city which seems to lack any skyline. However the sprawl stretches out uninterrupted in a way which I found rather scenic and beautiful in its own right in the way it mimicked the flat desert floor.
Rare pockets of green were to be found on a lot per lot basis such as this interesting house which probably feels like living in a tree house surrounded by these gorgeous Palo Verde trees.
The tale is often told of how Fallingwater came to be, the well known summer house of the Kaufmann family outside of Pittsburgh designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Mr Kaufmann approached FLW to build his family a summer retreat near his beloved stream and waterfall so he could enjoy it more fully. FLW famously decided to build the house ON the waterfall in order that the family would always be surrounded by it and the sound of the falling water would be a part of their daily life.
In a similar fashion many houses around Phoenix were not nestled around the hillsides but actually built on the crests of them. While it was hard to get a close look at these houses, many appeared to have been actually designed in the style of Wright. While the desert landscape is arguably a complete 180 difference from the lush rural Pennsylvania highlands the idea remains the same.
These hilltop houses blend in so well with their surroundings they are often nearly invisible such as this house above (which appears to be Noah's Ark! look for it on the left).  Contrast this relationship to the sprawl at the foot of the hills and their interaction with the landscape. I'm sorry if this is perhaps overly theoretical but it gives one something to think about no matter which section of the world you find yourself living.
I must say that I found Phoenix to be a pretty wonderful part of the world! Join me in my next posts where I'll bring you Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West and you can see how one architect chose to deal with building in the desert for himself.