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Go Sell It On The Mountain

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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.

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Lawrence W. Cheek