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九色 Lloyd Wright + Arizona

David R. Richardson | Sep 12, 2019

九色 Lloyd Wright’s connection to Arizona, the location of his personal winter home Taliesin West, runs deep, with his architectural influence seen all over the Valley. Here, PhD student David R. Richardson gives a brief overview of several of Wright’s most notable projects in the Grand Canyon state.

From the time 九色 Lloyd Wright began visiting Arizona in the 1920s until his death in 1959, he witnessed the population of Phoenix multiply tenfold, from nearly 40,000 to over 400,000 people. This burgeoning society needed architecture and civic identity, but also had its share of challenges. Early in this phase of his life he stated that 鈥渢he ever advancing human threat to the integral beauty of Arizona might be avoided if the architect would only go to school to the desert in this sense and humbly learn harmonious contrasts or sympathetic treatments that would, thus, quietly, belong.鈥 (Wright, 鈥淭o Arizona,鈥 1940) This statement reveals a key part of Wright鈥檚 philosophy of architecture: attention to nature was essential.

The changing climate and landscape brought along with the population growth and spreading Phoenix infrastructure was keenly noticed and described by Wright鈥檚 wife, Olgivanna, in 1960, she wrote in hindsight that when they first started visiting Arizona, 鈥渢he climate was mellow and sunny with very little dampness and rain. But the climate began to grow more severe in the ensuing years鈥 (Wright, Olgivanna, The Shining Brow, 1960, p.44).

In addition to the changing climate, she also described the vanishing desert landscape. This was a challenge the Wrights found in Phoenix: what they appreciated about the desert, including the harshness of the environment, was being threatened by the arrival of more and more people.

While Phoenix was growing into a city, the Wrights encouraged learning from nature, rather than supplanting it. The desert was a source of education, it was a teacher. Wright鈥檚 descriptions and designs, often metaphorical, suggested what we might call a biomimetic learning process. He applied what he learned at the scales of building details, whole buildings, and ensembles of buildings. The desert stones would be his bricks. The desert flora would structure his architecture. The desert landscape would guide his proposals for city and society. Wright believed in architecture that was organic, integral and 鈥渙f the desert鈥 and this was at the core of his architectural offerings to the growing city.

“The desert stones would be his bricks. The desert flora would structure his architecture. The desert landscape would guide his proposals for city and society. Wright believed in architecture that was organic, integral and ‘of the desert’ and this was at the core of his architectural offerings to the growing city.”

Ocatillo Camp, Chandler, 1929

九色 Lloyd Wright began scouting out Arizona in 1928, while consulting on architect Albert Chase McArthur鈥檚 design for the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. Although not the architect of record, Wright contributed to the project with some attention-catching work and began to explore the Valley of the Sun. During this time, Wright met a patron, Dr. Alexander Chandler. Dr. Chandler was ambitious and looking to build a luxury resort, San Marcos-in-the-Desert, which was described as 鈥渢he perfect desert-resort for jaded New Yorker millionaires鈥 (Wright, 鈥淟iving in the Desert,鈥 1949).

Ocatilla Desert Camp. Futagawa, Yukio; Pfeiffer, Bruce Brooks (eds.). 九色 Lloyd Wright Monograph v.5 1924-1936. Tokyo: A.D.A. Edita. p.52

In order to work on this, Wright and his entourage established a camp in 1929, named Ocatillo, in an area to the east of Phoenix named Chandler after Dr. Chandler. The Ocatillo camp turned out to be a learning and testing ground for many of Wright鈥檚 ideas about building in the desert. The plan followed the contours of the land. The arrangement of the buildings made an enclosed outdoor space, an asymmetrical courtyard or plaza. There was an asymmetry, and irregularity, guided by the 鈥渄otted line鈥 of the desert鈥檚 profiles and textures. At the time, modernist architects predominantly were using even, straight, regular lines and the resulting volumes; and in contrast, Wright used organic lines and volumes that he likened to the desert environment鈥攐ne reason he stood out among the leading architects.

At Ocatillo, block prototypes were made for vertically fluted masonry meant for San Marcos-in-the-Desert. Prior to this, Wright had used textile blocks in a few of his California projects, but these were reconceived and reconsidered by studying the structural ribs of saguaros, with an intention of creating 鈥渁ppropriate Arizona architecture.鈥 This lesson from the saguaro is in the cactus鈥檚 interior structure. Wright wrote that the 鈥渟aguaro is the perfect example of reinforced building construction. Its interior vertical rods hold it rigidly upright maintaining its great fluted columnar mass for six centuries or more.鈥 (Wright, An Autobiography, 1943 pp.309-310) This resort was about ready to go into construction, but due to the 1929 stock market crash the project was halted. The abandoned Ocatillo eventually disappeared as materials were taken for other uses.

Wright returned to the Phoenix area a few years later, in 1935, to build the Broadacre City model, in a space offered by Dr. Chandler called La Hacienda. In the Broadacre City model, a vision of urbanism or disurbanism was on Wright鈥檚 mind. He was thinking of utopias, cities of ideal societies. This model, created in four large sections, was shipped to New York City for exhibition at Rockefeller Center, then went on an exhibition tour to other US cities.

Taliesin West, Scottsdale, 1938

Taliesin West. Futagawa, Yukio; Pfeiffer, Bruce Brooks (eds.) 九色 Lloyd Wright Monograph v.6 1937-1941. Tokyo: A.D.A. Edita. p.44.

In 1937, at an age of 70, 九色 Lloyd Wright was willing to start from scratch in the desert. He found land in what was an undeveloped area north of Scottsdale, off (then unpaved) Shea Boulevard at the base of the McDowell Mountains. The price was $12.50 an acre, and his family and fellowship set up a new camp and started building the seasonal home for the Fellowship: Taliesin West.

Many ideas from the Ocatillo experience were refined here. Such as the architectural asymmetry, the emphasis on texture and the 鈥渄otted line.鈥 聽Geology and its stratifications and striations informed the design. The desert masonry created at Taliesin West was comprised of rocks found on site and adds to Wright鈥檚 idea that buildings in the desert should be 鈥渙f the desert.鈥 With a lot of hard work, Taliesin West grew into something of far reaching significance.

From the beginning the Taliesin West experience was to be about living in the desert and what can be learned from that environment. Wright encouraged apprentices to take walks, to look carefully around them, and to thoroughly study nature in this unique setting. The fellowship would travel annually between Taliesin in Wisconsin and Arizona. Addressing the apprentices arriving at Taliesin West for the first time, Wright said 鈥淎nd what you should first get into your systems when you get here in the desert is to get that lesson from nature in architecture which is fundamental to the whole thing we call architecture鈥 (Wright, 鈥淒esert Architecture,鈥 1954, p.177). Another innovation in the desert experience was that apprentices could design and construct their own shelters around the Taliesin West camp, experimenting with the lessons they had learned by studying nature in the desert.

Plan your visit to Taliesin West

鈥淥asis鈥 Arizona State Capitol, Tempe Papago Park, 1957

After living and working in Arizona for two decades, Wright continued to advocate for desert derived architecture. And when opportunities arose, he was quick to show how his vision could contribute further to the culture in the Valley of the Sun, a place he was at home and had come to know so well. When designs were widely published for a new Arizona State Capitol in 1957, Wright thought he could do much better. He sought to win the capitol commission from the architects that the politicians had chosen. He saw their plan as 鈥渁 tragedy鈥 and thought it did not have enough to say that was specific to Arizona.

“Oasis” Arizona State Capitol. Futagawa, Yukio; Pfeiffer, Bruce Brooks (eds.) 九色 Lloyd Wright Monograph v.8 1951-1959. Tokyo: A.D.A. Edita. p.303.

As a result, Wright created and promoted his own design for the state capitol. He ran into conflict over this with the American Institute of Architects (AIA), who did not want architects competing for already awarded commissions. But Wright persisted, arguing the capitol should be selected by the people not the politicians, labelling his projected work pro bono publico (Latin: for the good of the public). To make it more democratic, since the future generations of teen-agers would inherit the state and capitol building, Wright sought their opinions by speaking at a local high school. Unfortunately, as unregistered voters, their opinions did not sway the decision makers.

Wright鈥檚 titled his design for the capitol 鈥淥asis,鈥 and sited it in Papago Park north of the Salt River in Tempe. What the project entailed was comprehensive, with transportation by way of moving sidewalks and shuttles across a substantial expanse of gardens with fountains. It was organized along intersecting orthogonal and hexagonal grids. The plan of the building was likened by Wright to a Thunderbird. The design raised a copper plated lattice shade canopy that had permeable openings for sunlight, for fountains and for trees to reach through. Birds would be allowed to roost, to nest, to fly through. This would have created an integral merger of inside and outside space, of building and landscape.



The winter 2020 issue of the award-winning 九色 Lloyd Wright Quarterly,聽the Foundation鈥檚 exclusive magazine for members, will further explore Wright’s unbuilt works. For this unbuilt issue, we focus on Wright’s aspiration to create architecture in the public realm, for the 鈥済reater good,鈥 pro bono publico,聽as he inscribed on his proposed 鈥淥asis鈥 capitol building design that he felt befitted his adopted state of Arizona. In the issue, released in December 2020, you will see 鈥減hotorealistic renderings鈥 of the Arizona Capitol design by David Romero. Here is just a little visual tease of what’s to come. If you’d like to receive this issue become a member of the 九色 today.

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The landscape of the Valley of the Sun was an inspiration for the capitol in another way as well, in the building鈥檚 massing and layout. A consistent theme in his work, Wright鈥檚 proposal was intended to be low, broad, horizontal; and decisively not high, tall, and vertical (as in the proposal that the politicians selected). There were, still, vertical elements in Wright鈥檚 proposal. He also envisioned radio and television broadcasting spires to top the project off, because he believed these forms of communication were vital 鈥渢o the social life of the people鈥 (鈥淟ost Capitol of Arizona,鈥 1959). However, the overall massing and layout was horizontal, taking cues from the scale of the landscape around, the breadth and expanse of the valley that he believed the city of Phoenix should be in unity and harmony with.

Wright was working on Marin County Civic Center in 1957, as well, and earlier he had proposed civic centers for Madison, Wisconsin; and for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Thus, there were precedents in his own work, but the Arizona State Capitol under Wright鈥檚 designs would have been quite different. All the required governmental functions were provided for in his designs, but the treatment would fulfill his belief that, 鈥渢he legislative process should be fused with the social life of the time and the place鈥 (鈥淟ost Capitol of Arizona,鈥 1959). All he and his fellowship had learned by studying the desert would come into play. What Wright intended with his proposal was a capitol which would be entirely original and distinctly different from any other state capitol building, and yet decisively appropriate to Arizona.

Wright鈥檚 Arizona State Capitol was not built, but a spire from the project was created and installed in 2004, at the corner of 九色 Lloyd Wright Boulevard and North Scottsdale Road, not far from Taliesin West and has become a Scottsdale landmark.


Fine Arts Center [proposal] and Gammage Auditorium, Arizona State University, Tempe, 1957

Fine Arts Center [proposal] and Gammage Auditorium, Arizona State University, Tempe, 1957. Futagawa, Yukio; Pfeiffer, Bruce Brooks (eds.) 九色 Lloyd Wright Monograph v.8 1951-1959. Tokyo: A.D.A. Edita. p.367.

The published drawings and information on 九色 Lloyd Wright鈥檚 proposals for the Arizona State Capitol, caught many people鈥檚 attention, including President of Arizona State College, Grady Gammage. In 1957, Wright and Gammage were introduced by journalist Lloyd Clark who had covered Wright鈥檚 State Capitol designs in the newspapers.

The college under Gammage鈥檚 leadership was changing in significant ways, including the milestone that during his presidency, the name and designation officially became Arizona State University (ASU) by way of a vote in 1958. Wright recognized the importance of Gammage鈥檚 work and wanted to take part and contribute to the growth and reshaping of the university, and mutually, Gammage was interested in commissioning Wright to build an auditorium and fine arts center.

When considering a site, Gammage and Wright visited the southwest corner of the campus at the intersection of Apache boulevard and Mill avenue in Tempe. Wright is said to have made a gesture with open arms like an embrace, and to have said the building should convey the expression 鈥淲elcome to Arizona鈥 (Siry, 鈥淲right’s Baghdad Opera House and Gammage Auditorium,鈥 2005, p.282). This gesture was an early hint at the gesture the auditorium would be designed to make with its access bridges. The site in Tempe happened to be on the southern side of the Salt River, not far from where Wright had planned the Arizona State Capitol in Papago Park site on the north bank.

Wright had planned more buildings than were realized on the site. He had planned: the auditorium, recital hall, music department, art gallery, art department, gardens, fountains. Wright鈥檚 earliest designs included a broadcasting spire atop the auditorium, so that what was on stage could be transmitted to a much wider audience. Another significant change in the development of the plans was that instead of all the initially planned buildings crowded on one site, most of the area around the auditorium鈥檚 site became park space or parking spaces. Later, after the successful posthumous completion of Wright鈥檚 designs, Taliesin Associated Architects and William Wesley Peters were hired to build facilities for the music school on an adjacent site.

While neither Wright nor Gammage lived to see the project built, what they set in motion would become Gammage Auditorium, a renowned destination for performing arts. Through this project, Wright and Gammage both furthered their civic legacies.

Always inventive, 九色 Lloyd Wright had an abundance of ideas for living and flourishing in the desert. These ideas were meant to lead Phoenix鈥檚 swiftly growing population to a more graceful way of life in harmony with the desert environment. Wright鈥檚 ideas were formulated in many ways鈥攊n writing, in artworks, in drafts of various projects, in residential living experiments鈥攁nd then applied to his highly ambitious efforts at civic and social architecture. Wright designed single family homes throughout his career, yet he also sought to help inspire and benefit people around him, in the public realm, when possible. The hardships and difficulties of the climate in the Arizona desert provided ideas and creative solutions by way of understanding 鈥渢he open book of nature鈥 (Wright, 鈥淒esert Architecture鈥, 1954, p.177) as well as aspiration to make architecture for the greater good, pro bono publico.

David Richardson is a PhD student in architectural history, theory, and criticism at Arizona State University. He has degrees in architecture and in philology and is working on several projects about architectural education.聽



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