Designing Arizona

There is nothing more uncommon than common sense.

-- Frank Lloyd Wright

Wright was right. One needs only to glimpse the multitudes of golf courses, swimming pools and artificial lakes here in our desert to know that he was right. A house that faces west still makes us Arizona natives laugh hysterically. But rather than make fun, architects and designers have spent years working on alternatives.

One of the most consistent of those architects is Les Wallach. Founder of the Tucson architectural firm Line and Space, Wallach calls contemporary Arizona architecture "Santa Barbara by way of Greece with a bit of French chateau." In other words, much of our local architecture is derivative and confused. But Wallach's firm, founded in 1978, has been working furiously to buck this trend of hodgepodge architecture and instead create buildings that fit their desert surroundings.

"We don't input some other idea and try to make it fit Arizona -- we're trying to make architecture match our own unique environment," Wallach says. "Good architecture comes from an understanding of the essence of a place, not in copying detail."

Luckily for us, Wallach and several architects and design firms in the Valley with the same attitude are getting together for a groundbreaking exhibition of architecture and design in Arizona, "southwestNET: architecture and design," which opens Friday, May 30, at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

Debra Hopkins, SMoCA's curator of exhibitions, says, "Our museum is beginning to focus on architecture and design because no other museum does it." In response to a growing interest in architecture of the Southwest, SMoCA also recently formed an advisory committee, which includes individuals in the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, applied design, and graphic design. This show, as a beginning of this new mission, is inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri, and is meant to pay homage to both of them.

"southwestNET" includes large sculptures, sketches, models, computer animation and photography. Among the architectural firms included is Wendell Burnette Architects of Phoenix; Burnette was the co-designer of the Burton Barr Central Library. Several graphic design groups, such as Licher Art & Design of Sedona, will also contribute to the show. Bruce Licher is known for his designs that appear on the albums of such bands as R.E.M., Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven.

Perhaps the most important message of this show is that buildings, houses and the designs that are contained within them shouldn't only be things that please our eyes, they should also be things that sustain, celebrate and share our desert.

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Maidi Terry