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Desert-Inspired Architectural Innovation

Expansive and striking, the singular lines of Scottsdale’s Sonoran Desert have inspired dreamers and doers for millennia. Prehistoric settlers fashioned adobe bricks and intricate irrigation systems that transformed the desert into farmland. More recently, Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentices created a bold desert vision in Scottsdale that remains relevant today. The latest wave of architectural achievement reflects strong environmental values, cutting-edge design and a unique desert setting recognized the world over.


When looking at the rugged mountains that merge with endless blue skies, it’s no wonder many of the world’s greatest minds have been inspired by Scottsdale. Get a glimpse of the first desert visionaries while exploring the 1,500-year-old ruins of Hohokam settlers at the Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park in Phoenix. Here, you can see firsthand a ceremonial platform mound, an excavated ball court and remnants of the desert farmers’ life-giving canals, the basis for the region’s modern-day water supply. Approximately 1,000 miles of canals crisscross Scottsdale and its neighboring communities, a marvel that befuddles many archeologists since the Hohokam people didn’t have access to modern tools.

Hundreds of years later, when contracted to consult on the Arizona Biltmore resort in the 1920s, Frank Lloyd Wright set eyes on Scottsdale and instantaneously fell in love. Scottsdale’s Taliesin West is Wright’s enduring masterpiece that exemplifies his love affair with the destination. He spent more than two decades carving out a residence and architecture school that seamlessly integrates indoor and outdoor space. Now a National Historic Monument, Taliesin West attracts more than 150,000 visitors annually and remains a functioning architecture school where students are applying Wright’s architectural principals to designing buildings today. Wright also designed Arizona State University’s Gammage Auditorium, host to touring Broadway productions inside a three-tiered hall that features outstanding acoustics. Regarded as Wright’s last residential masterpiece, the David and Gladys Wright House in neighboring Arcadia was the precursor to the Guggenheim in Manhattan.


Italian-born architect, artist, ceramicist and former student of Wright, the late architectural visionary Paolo Soleri lived and worked at Cosanti, a studio he built in nearby Paradise Valley in 1970 to demonstrate how urban conditions could be improved while minimizing negative environmental effects. Today, Soleri’s legacy endures through the hand-casted ceramic and bronze wind bells still made at his former home and through monthly architecture onsite seminars.

In December 2010, the Soleri Bridge and Plaza debuted on the Arizona Canal to connect the Scottsdale Waterfront with the rest of downtown Scottsdale. The bridge is Soleri’s first and only design to be built, although he designed myriad bridges during his lifetime. Soleri’s design evokes his fascination with planetary movement thanks to two, 64-foot-high pylons that form a shaft of light across the bridge that allows visitors to tell the time. Framed by a public plaza leading visitors from Scottsdale Road into the downtown area, the bridge is capped by a bell tower housing the world’s largest assemblage of Soleri wind bells.


Mid-century modern architecture is typified by the Hotel Valley Ho, a hip and iconic masterpiece in downtown Scottsdale. Scottsdale’s only designated historic property was designed by Edward Varney, who served as an apprentice of Wright. Wright and Varney’s stamp is evident throughout, due to Varney utilizing organic materials, designing indoor and outdoor spaces that seamlessly meld together, developing cantilevered breezeways, and integrating simple, bold geometric shapes. While the property fell into disrepair in the 80s and 90s, it was restored to its former Mad Men-era grandeur in 2005, when the entire property was renovated and a tower with additional rooms and condos was built.

Famed architect, planner and author, Vernon Swaback was Wright’s youngest apprentice at Taliesin West. Swaback’s prestigious firm, Swaback Partners, pioneered smart and green design. Experience the sumptuous yet sustainable Spa Avania at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch, which incorporates contemporary architecture, a sun-inspired color palette and natural light throughout resort and its eco-pond.

Formerly the Paradise Valley Racket Club and John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch, Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa is a posh retreat originally designed by Wright protégé Hiram Hudson Benedict. The floor-to-ceiling glass walls in the property’s signature restaurant and neighboring cocktail lounge perfectly showcase views of Camelback Mountain, where the resort is perched.

One of Scottsdale’s oldest resorts, the Scottsdale Resort & Conference Center, was designed by one of Scottsdale’s foremost architects, Benny Gonzales, who also designed other significant buildings in the area, including Scottsdale City Hall, Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and Civic Center Library. In 2015, the resort underwent a full renovation, transforming the 39-year-old independent property into The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch. With a Mexican hacienda-inspired makeover, the renovation introduces a new color palette and furnishings, as well as an open-air kitchen in Sangria’s Lounge.


At just 65 years young, Scottsdale may seem like an adolescent compared to the country’s more mature cities and towns. But this young city likes to honor its past. One step into historic Old Town Scottsdale, a neighborhood decked out in hitching posts and home to a working blacksmith shop that’s thrived since 1920, proves just that. Yet Scottsdale is continually welcoming new innovators and businesses. These newcomers embrace Scottsdale’s history as they spearhead sustainable adaptive reuse projects to preserve and invigorate Scottsdale’s historic structures. 

Take the Charles Miller House, for example. The bungalow was built in 1913 for the home of Charles Miller, the man who brought electricity to the city. Over the years, it’s been abandoned, moved and restored. In recent years, the oldest standing house in Scottsdale has been transformed into a store, Ali’s Living Lifestyle Boutique, selling apparel, artisan jewelry and local art.

Not to be outdone, the second-oldest standing house, built in the 1938, has become a cool restaurant, aptly named The House Brasserie. Decked out in carefully curated antiques, The House evokes a bygone era, a time when service and hospitality mattered most in the dining experience. Diners can enjoy chef Matt Carter’s world cuisine in the cozy dining room or on the shaded patio, beneath what was once the Christmas tree of the original homeowners.

Just down the street, the sleek Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) was formerly a movie theater. Renowned Arizona modernist Will Bruder, who worked and studied under Soleri, transformed the space, which offers five constantly evolving art galleries and a permanent James Turrell skyspace, where visitors can experience the alternating hues of the desert sky.

Next up, Postino Wine Café took over what used to be the Valley National Bank, designed by architect Frank Henry, the late Studio Master Emeritus of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, in the 1960s.

This list could go on. The first drugstore in the city, built in 1921, is now Saba’s Department Store, selling Western wear and cowboy boots. The 1923 Johnny Rose’s Pool Hall now touts Mexican imports. The Farmer’s State Bank of Scottsdale, built in 1921, has housed Rusty Spur Saloon since the 1960s.


Some of Scottsdale’s most architecturally stunning buildings are contemporary museums. Like a desert oasis, OdySea Aquarium, a 200,000-quare foot, two-level attraction opened in September 2016. The largest aquarium in the Southwest, it is home to more than 500 species of aquatic life and offers guests an unparalleled interactive experience. Throughout the interior and exterior of the building, touches from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community can be found, including the skin of the building, which has been designed to resemble a Native American basket.

The Old West meets the New West at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, which opened in January 2015. The two-story, 43,000-square foot museum’s skin mimics that of saguaro cactus ribs, which pairs well with the low-water use desert plants that flank the campus. Both indoor and outdoor spaces meet the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Standard for sustainability, conserving precious natural resources while also raising public awareness of their vital importance to the Western region.

The 190,000-square-foot Musical Instrument Museum is home to some of the rarest instruments in the world, but the space that holds them is equally impressive. The museum features two floors of galleries, the Music Theater, a garden courtyard, a café and a gift shop. Designed by award-winning architect Rich Varda and the Minneapolis- and Phoenix-based firm RSP Architects, MIM features a distinctive architecture that evokes the topography of the Southwest, suggests the museum’s international scope and expresses the universal role of music across all cultures.