Go Sell It On The Mountain

Page 4 of 4

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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lawrence W. Cheek