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Go Sell It On The Mountain

If the guard at Desert Mountain didn't know Bob Bacon, he wouldn't be letting us in; he'd be calling the cops. Bacon is a sleepy-eyed, unreconstructed longhair whose curly black locks dangle halfway down the lapels of his black leather jacket. He's not a biker, but he burned out two turbos on his last Nissan 300ZX, pretty fair evidence that he's done some serious perpetrating.

But Bacon's no hood. He's the designer of this ultra-exclusive, north Scottsdale development's new clubhouse--which, at $250 a square foot, could be the most expensive piece of architecture, for its size, yet built in Arizona. Back when Bacon worked for the Phoenix architectural firm of Allen & Philp, he also figured heavily in the design of The Boulders, easily Scottsdale's toniest resort. If Bacon prefers to design these playgrounds for the plutocrats while dressing like someone who'd rather rob them, well, it isn't his only contradiction.

We spend a full morning prowling the clubhouse. I'm interested because it's a dramatic new example of mountainside architecture, and because Bacon is one of the few designers who has really thought through the problem of imposing manmade things on the stark, fragile, naked landscapes of Arizona's desert mountains, buttes and foothills. Most architects do it brutally; Bacon's reputation rests on having done it with remarkable creativity and sensitivity.

But suppose we could go back sixty years, I ask him, before anything was built in places like this, draw a line skirting every Arizona mountain, and then just say no: no building of any kind, no matter how brilliantly designed, on any mountain slope or foothill. No millionaires' Casbahs, no Pointe resorts--and no Boulders resort or Desert Mountain clubhouse. Would he endorse such a law?

"Yes," he says.

MOST OF THE BEST architects who have worked in Arizona have built on mountains. This is not coincidence. A mountainside setting always invests a building with drama. It also can be a billboard for the architect's work.

Oral history around Sedona has it that on his first visit to the Red Rocks, Frank Lloyd Wright proclaimed, "Nothing should ever be built here." Sounds like Wright, although that hypocritical fart/genius would have started work on a ninety-story apartment tower the next morning if a client had asked for it. Wright usually said the right things. His credo was, "A house should not be on a hill, but of it." Many of his mountainside buildings wriggle out of their sites with such inevitability, such grace, that they seem like giant geometric organisms feeding on the rocks.

Taliesin West is the great example; possibly no other building in North America has so fully embraced "the mood of the land," as Oregon architect Pietro Belluschi has put it. A more peculiar Wright was at work in the Phoenix Mountains (6836 North 36th Street), where a house in the form of a snail turned on its side curls out of a rocky mountain slope. This house, executed by Taliesin Associated Architects after Wright's death, might have been exemplary mountain architecture except for one thing: it's made of apricot-colored bricks. Remember that word B*I*L*L*B*O*A*R*D?

There's one in Sedona. Anshen & Allen Architects of San Francisco crowned a pair of auburn buttes with the famous Chapel of the Holy Cross in 1956. There's no Wrightian genuflection to nature here; this building is authoritative, defiant, impassive. It looks stronger than the mountain it's built on. Its sermon is all about worshiping the triumph of humankind over the land. It's a great work of architecture, and a stunning expression of ego.

Likewise, in Tucson, architect Kenneth Frizzell never checked the codes before designing his first concept of Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. His rendering showed hundreds of tightly packed earth-brown habitats cascading down the front range of the Santa Catalinas, jostling heroic escarpments and outcroppings for position. It looked like a mountainside Oz. The Pima County slope ordinance, even though perforated with exemptions, wasn't about to bend over for a scheme like this.

Still, Frizzell remained in love with his idea, so much so that in 1982, he reproduced the rendering on his Christmas card, drew the Star of Bethlehem in the indigo sky over the resort, and captioned it with a verse from the first chapter of Luke: "It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first."

If mountains bring out the god in architects, mountainside sites tend to bloat clients' egos as well. They don't talk about this, of course; they carry on about the views. A few offer more mystical justifications. A Tucson psychiatrist who lived in a house in the Catalina foothills once told me that people build on mountains for the same reasons they build on seacoasts: The mountain, like the ocean, represents something that is changeless, timeless, indestructible. It promises that as there has been a past, so there will be a future. By snuggling up against the mountain, he theorized, we assure ourselves that we, as a culture, also have a future.

I am sorry to admit that I once reported that bull drool in another article without challenging it. Trespass through the subdivisions crawling up the sides of, say, Camelback Mountain, and study the kinds of houses people have built. How much communing with the mountain's spirit seems to be going on? "It's pure ego," architect Will Bruder says. We're touring the heights of the Phoenix Mountains and Mummy Mountain in Paradise Valley, Bruder pointing out infrequent samples of sensitive houses and the increasing ostentation and wretched excess. Bruder says he's starting to see the Beverly Hills phenomenon in the Valley's northeastern mountains, where people are buying older, smaller houses, knocking them down, and building monsters in their places. Not many of the newest homes are quiet and deferential.

"Look at that house," Bruder says, pointing to a white palace. "It meets all the Paradise Valley hillside ordinance requirements, except for the color. The owner insists on his right to paint it white, and it's in court right now." We enter another development, where Bruder himself designed a relatively modest, unobtrusive mountainside house a few years ago.

"Look at it now," he says. "It looks like the gatehouse for all these mothers behind it. There's a 13,000-square-foot job that's used as a weekend home for a couple from the Midwest! When you do that, you're essentially putting a hotel on the mountainside."

PEOPLE HAVEN'T been building on these desert mountain slopes for long; there are very few houses that date back even to 1950. It wasn't that Pioneer Man had any more delicacy in his attitude toward the land, but an accident of geography. Phoenix started out as a farm town, and the farmland that could easily be irrigated was in the flats near the Salt River. The city grew from the river outward, and it took a few generations to ooze into the mountains.

What we've managed to do to the mountains in forty years is amazing. Until 1976, when Scottsdale and Pima County passed the first hillside ordinances in the state, there was virtually no regulation anywhere in Arizona. Anyone who could afford a mountainside lot could do anything he wanted.

The Red Rocks of Sedona have been the most tragic victims. Houses are strewn over the hills, ridges, buttes and escarpments of this spectacular landscape like litter in a stadium. Building pads are gouged from the hills, and the rubble dumped unceremoniously downslope.

As far as any sort of planning was concerned, Sedona has been a banana republic. The town didn't even incorporate until 1988, and until then, building essentially was regulated by pressure groups lurching from one county courthouse to another--Sedona straddles Yavapai and Coconino Counties. The town has arguably the most spectacular natural setting of any in North America, but what's been built there is little but a monument to a concept long cherished in the West: A person's property is his to do with as he damn pleases, and the notion of pro bono publico can burn in hell.

It seems very late, but Sedona is finally working on a community plan to protect its spectacular rocks. The goal is not a tight web of restrictions, says architect John Sather, but "to get people to realize that they're the caretakers of one of the most beautiful places on earth."

The experience of more sophisticated municipalities around the state hasn't been much better. In Pima County, the "peaks and ridges" section of the slope ordinance specifically exempted the Catalinas--which is where all the most spectacular and sensitive land and all the money was. Today the southern and western slopes emulate the clutter on Camelback.

In Paradise Valley, drive around to the east side of Mummy Mountain and see a new Burns International subdivision named "La Place du Sommet." There are no houses yet, only a medieval-looking gatehouse and a road that slashes 180 degrees around the side of the canyon, looking for all the world like a fledgling strip mine.

"They came to us [in 1984] with a development plan for one house per acre," says former mayor Joan Lincoln. "I began to have serious doubts about how much scarring it was going to cause. We turned it down, and they filed a $43 million lawsuit." A negotiated settlement allowed the projected one house per acre, and the access road was cut into the canyon. Paradise Valley went to work and toughened its ordinance, but the damage had already been done.

In Scottsdale, a citizens' committee has been struggling for years to write the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Ordinance. Dudley Onderdonk, Scottsdale's advance planning manager, expects passage, finally, in May. But Onderdonk--whom architects and environmentalists alike see as a good guy trying to make the best of a difficult situation--seems to confess the futility of this ordinance even as he explains it.

"There's no question we're going to see development in the mountains where we haven't seen it before," he says.

"Under this ordinance, you can even build on a 35 percent slope, up there where you'd think only mountain goats can live. It's very low density, one house per forty acres, but it would still be a real shame if someone does it, because they'd have to blow up half a mountain for an access road to it."

Doesn't Scottsdale attract the sort of people, I ask, who have both the determination and bottomless bank accounts to do precisely that?

"Yes," he says.

BY ARIZONA STANDARDS, the butte just to the west of I-10's sweeping bend in Tempe is a throwaway mountain. It's a 300-foot reddish-gray lump poking out of the Valley floor, more a curio than a spectacle. One evening a few years ago, I clambered to its summit, moved by some perverse curiosity to see 1,500 square miles of urban sprawl blink on at twilight. I sat on a boulder and watched the traffic seethe in the Valley below, and suddenly the city seemed irrelevant, its rush-hour frenzy futile. The little mountain, cool and dark and utterly at peace, was like a monk meditating in a frenzied agora. I felt a part of that, and it struck me at the time that this was as good a reason as any to keep even these micromountains away from developers.

In 1986, Cornoyer-Hedrick Architects set upon this butte with dynamite, and crowned it with a luxury hotel--Westcourt in the Buttes--that virtually turned the mountain into a theme park.

Considering the amount of dynamite they had to burn, they did a surprisingly respectable job. They didn't try to plunk an architectural extravaganza onto it, correctly discerning that the site itself was action enough. The two long, three-story wings of guest rooms wrap around the sides of two peaklets like a brace of arms gathering up a towering load of rocks. The exterior color, a deep mauve, harmonizes graciously with the butte, especially in the soft light of early evening. Hotel guests rarely seem to comment on the architecture; they're more turned on by the mountain--which is as it should be.

Your correspondent remains grumpy mostly because the butte has been hyped up, tricked out and embellished with features such as little waterfalls slithering down the rocks. If the guests don't like our Sonoran Desert the way it is, let 'em stay in Dayton.

Thirty miles to the north, Bob Bacon tried a very different and more complex approach to mountainside architecture in the Desert Mountain clubhouse.

In his earlier essay at The Boulders, Bacon had toyed with geological context. The sculptural, free-form main building abuts its little "mountain"--a 200-foot-high pile of feldspar and granite boulders--like a coolly contemporary ballet on a Fred Flintstone stage set. Or it could be an eroded land form from a kinder, gentler geologic epoch. It works because the building is unpredictable (as are mountains), yet quiet. It doesn't try to upstage its site. If it had been painted pink instead of brown, it would have been disastrous.

At Desert Mountain, Bacon invented a cultural context for the clubhouse. Valley architects have been trying to do this for generations, plundering Phoenix's mythical Spanish colonial past, usually with embarrassing results. Bacon raided Phoenix's mythical Anasazi past for his imagery. The building's parapets appear eroded, like ancient ruins; free-standing walls cascade down into a wash, following the contours of the land just like the pre-earthmover Ancient Ones did it. Even the jagged stone walls exude a primitive character. "When you finally think you have the texture rough enough," Bacon told the stonemasons, "make it rougher."

If this were simple prehistoric image-mongering, there'd be no reason to linger on it--the Valley has more accessible architectural fantasies. But we're still talking mountainside architecture here, and in fact, if one insists on building something on a mountain, there is no better source of inspiration than the Anasazi. Their cities fill the alcoves at the bases of canyon walls with such organic grace that it's sometimes hard to tell where nature ends and architecture begins. The buildings grow out of the earth, rather than being parked on it.

At 52,000 square feet, the Desert Mountain clubhouse is too big to retreat shyly into its site, but Bacon took several good steps to minimize its visual impact.

One is those eroded parapets. Not only do they look like Indian ruins, they also echo the rough ridgelines of Apache Mountain in the background. The eye sweeps along them to the top of the building, just as you follow ridges to a mountain peak. The building echoes the character of the land, instead of trying to impose order on the mountain--the way the Acropolis of Athens does.

The clubhouse keeps a low profile. You'd never know there are three stories here; the messy necessities such as golf-cart parking are all below grade. And the roof is unobtrusive. It slopes, and it's clad in oxidized copper, but it's patterned so that it doesn't look like a flat sheet. As a member of the design review board for Desert Mountain, Bacon gives monthly workshops in hopes of convincing lot buyers and their architects to think about their desert and mountain sites in some of these same terms. Bacon is fairly charitable about human nature; he believes that most people will do the right thing with the land if only they're educated.

"For example, a lot of people will pick up a handful of dirt from their lot, take it back home to Ohio and start looking at paint samples," he says. "What they're doing is matching their houses to a bald spot in the desert. What they should be doing is trying to match vegetation in shadow. That would give them the best chance that whatever they build will fit in for a long, long time."

Some other architects, while not necessarily buying all Bacon's ideas, have given conscientious thought to building on desert slopes.

"I don't approach it in terms of how do we do the least damage, but how we can produce the most beautiful sculptural form," says Vernon Swaback, a former disciple of Wright. "I've never tried to hide our buildings, but make them look like they belong there. I take the first cue from the geometry of the site. The next cue is the spiritual character of the site."

Swaback does labor to hide certain things--driveways and garages, for example, which always read as scar tissue on mountain slopes. And like Bacon, he works to educate clients.

"I tell them that when you build a house on a sensitive site, you need to be prepared to spend money not just to do the things you want, but the things the site needs you to do." He sighs, knowing that for every architect and client who listen to the land, ten will simply have their way with it. "You know, in early Scottsdale, people built secluded homes here. There would be a little gravel driveway, and you could hardly see the house. Now you see these gigantic, ostentatious villas--tract homes on hormones--perched on the hillsides.

"Sometimes I actually want to go up to the door and bang on it, and ask, `Do you realize what kind of a statement you're making with this house?'"

Which, of course, would be futile, just like the ordinances. Nobody can legislate good taste, or good architecture. A dozen years ago, when I was first groping for some philosophy of design and environment, I went to see Robert McConnell, then dean of the University of Arizona's College of Architecture. I wanted to talk architecture and mountains--colors, textures, forms, moods. McConnell stared at me as if I were trying to discuss the various configurations of rape. "The best thing we architects can do for the mountains," he said, "is stay away from them."

"Sometimes I actually want to go up to the door and bang on it, and ask, `Do you realize what kind of a statement you're making with this house?'"

If one insists on building something on a mountain, there is no better source of inspiration than the Anasazi.

If mountains bring out the god in architects, mountainside sites tend to bloat clients' egos as well. Of course, they don't talk about this.

As far as any sort of planning was concerned, Sedona has been a banana republic.

The butte has been hyped up with little waterfalls slithering down the rocks. If the guests don't like our Sonoran Desert the way it is, let 'em stay in Dayton.

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Lawrence W. Cheek