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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.