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In search of answers…

In search of answers…

Walt Lockley is back! AZarchitecture has invited Walt Lockley to contribute to our ongoing conversation on architecture and design. We've been a long time fan of his work and writing and are pleased to share his voice once again with the community... Enjoy this inaugural piece that picks up where he left off!

Scott Jarson’s kind invitation to contribute to this conversation (thank you, Scott) led me to revisit his posts here. I’m ashamed to say I’d forgotten the David Wright House in Scottsdale had ever been in danger. I’d completely forgotten that Scott took the lead with a full-throated and effective defense of that irreplaceable landmark, now thankfully in safe hands.

Part of why it had slipped my mind, probably, is the very idea that a well-preserved, attractive, significant residence designed by the greatest American architect for his own son could be wantonly bulldozed in that architect’s adopted hometown. That idea is so outlandish and random that it just didn’t stay in my memory somehow.

My gears also slipped back in 2006 when I screwed up an interview about that “Golden Dome” former Valley National Bank branch at Rural and Apache in Tempe. (The bank was destroyed, and the geodesic panel-dome itself saved and reinstalled nearby at ground level, as a sort of pavilion.) I’d already faced off with the young female photographer from the Republic, who’d posed me squinting into the August sun at noon, good God, evidently thinking I’d be more appetizing if roasted off for twenty minutes. Then an equally young female reporter asked me a number of questions over a patchy cell phone connection, ending with, “Why is it important to save this building?” I launched into an explanation that included the phrase ‘social reality.’

She interrupted. “That’s kind of psycho-speak. Say it like you’re explaining it to a child.”

That stunned me. After this new insight about the newspaper business, my mind was spinning too fast on three tracks for my mouth to work, and the interview was short. I’ve had several years to come up with the best answer, which is, “Sorry, I don’t talk to children.”

But the question has bothered me since. It’s a good obvious question. Why should we care about the David Wright House? As Scott pointed out it’s a pertinent question for Phoenicians and the still-developing sense of history in Valley. After my botched interview I even wrote it down somewhere. “Are there any good reasons for architectural historic preservation that you can’t chalk up to nostalgia, self-indulgence or style?”

Yes. First I’d advise my former self from 2006, hang on, let’s not be too hasty about the value of nostalgia, self-indulgence and style. In any conversation about historic preservation it’s okay to talk about oddity, mystery, and beauty. Just because those are matters of taste doesn’t mean bad taste should always win.

But there are more objective reasons. As a creative discipline architecture has enormous untapped potential. It’s still exciting. And it’s because architects tend to be more creative than disciplined. Driven by strong egos and restless newness and self-expression, since its official beginning American architecture has never been able to keep pace with the continuous advent of new materials and techniques. Or keep pace with how social changes best translate into good living spaces. Or even keep track of its own good solutions. Architecture is a great field for neglected innovation, missed chances, lost possibility.

The most casual observer in Phoenix might notice its houses are (let’s say it gently) not a perfect fit for the demands of this climate. But those lessons were worked out even before Phoenix became a year-round city, those lessons about high ceilings and windows that encourage airflow, deep overhangs and vegetation, masonry mass as heat batteries, turning your back on the southwest, the use of shade, and maybe a dozen other passive techniques. Not hard, not expensive, nothing outlandish, no great impediment to whatever else a stylist might want to project.

It’s also true of the David Wright house. That was an experiment in a circular floorplan as a sort of dress rehearsal for the Guggenheim. Appreciations of Wright’s legacy lean towards describing the rare beauty and comfort of his spaces, his point of view, his genius, his taste. That’s all cool. But there’s a more practical thing going on too. People tend to overlook the fact that graduates of Taliesin have come out of a cohesive and durable craft tradition, with an accumulated expertise in witty economy of materials, finely tuned floorplans, built-in storage, consistent fitting of details to human scale, to name a few.

That’s the argument. That’s my answer to the Republic, only six and a half years late. We need that architectural history preserved if only because we have some reverse engineering to do. We have important things to learn from Bruce Goff, from Felix Candela, from John Lautner, from Benny Gonzales. Things about raising our standard of living, about living under a hot fiery sun, about the way we live with each other, and the way we treat each other. What’s more important than that?