Above image: Canal Convergence
In the 1930s, Frank Lloyd Wright started making regular treks from Wisconsin to Scottsdale, Arizona. The climate suited him, and in winter months, he found it easier to breathe. By 1937, he’d made the desert oasis a permanent winter residence and constructed what would become one of his most well-known masterpieces, Taliesin West. The city built up around him over the following decades, going from vast and empty desert land to a thriving metropolis.
Today, though he’d hardly recognize it, Wright’s legacy lives on there. From the architecture he influenced, to Scottsdale’s longstanding commitment to preservation, sustainability, and art.
This month, over 200,000 people congregated to witness Canal Convergence, an annual art festival that started as a diversion for when the local canals were drained. It’s since evolved into one of Scottsdale’s most anticipated attractions (though Spring Training still reigns supreme). And like Wright discovered almost a century ago, the weather does provide a breath of fresh air this time of year.
We joined the crowds to explore the abundance of art, design, and culture that defines this cosmopolitan Southwestern city. Here’s what we did.
This hidden gem gives local artists and artisans a supportive space to create, much like a commune without all the living quarters (though there is a van). Owner Mark McDowell, a painter himself, walked us through the historic complex, which dates back to the 1930s. Today, Cattle Track welcomes art talent across several mediums, including painting, photography, ceramics, and even, well…blacksmithing. They also have a gallery space that defies art world conventions: artists can hold shows, sell their works, and keep 100% of the profits.
Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri made a home in Scottsdale after a stint apprenticing for Wright at Taliesin West. Cosanti served as his gallery, studio, and residence, and today the space houses a molten bronze bell casting business. A walk around revealed several earth-formed concrete structures styled to dramatic effect by Soleri’s ecologically-inspired vision. Elaborately designed bronze bells hang throughout, adding an audible sensory experience.
At SMOCA the art begins outside, as James Turrell’s “Skyspace” is seamlessly incorporated into its facade. It’s one of only a handful of Turrell’s completed works in the world (though Kanye West is helping him finish another). Inside, Counter Landscapes: Performative Actions from the 1970s to Now (on view through January) encapsulates the powerful dynamic between artist and environment. Marina Abramovic, Agnes Denes, Antonia Wright, Sarah Cameron Sunde all have works on display.
In one room filled with hanging planters of creosote bush (a local plant with a potent scent), we watched a video work of Wright falling through an icy lake again and again. In another, Sunde uses her own body as a measurement of the rising tides in a video series titled 36.5/A Durational Performance with the Sea. Intense stuff.
A must-see for design aficionados, Taliesin West is Wright’s sprawling desert compound just outside downtown Scottsdale. He, his third wife, and a band of apprentices took to the land in the ‘30s to create what is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. He discovered there was in fact water flowing not too far underground, and turned a piece of desert into a working design laboratory.
Each space holds its own otherworldly vibe: a movie room feels like a bunker with rock walls and uplighting (a technique we have Wright to thank for); a concert hall is specifically shaped to amplify music; a theater is cloaked in red velvet. Wright made space for the things he loved, and his appreciation for the arts ran deep. He once cited Beethoven as the greatest architect, noting he could make a symphony out of only four notes. To that end, Wright famously made every structure in Taliesin West out of materials he found in the desert. Even the color palettes were inspired by the natural landscape (lots of Cherokee Red). He spent the last 20 years of his life here — the most prolific of his career, and is said to be buried somewhere on the grounds.
It would be a disservice to head to the Southwest and not partake in some great Latin cuisine – and this is the place to do it. Here, chef Matt Carter reinvents his French culinary training with a menu focused on South American flavors. We loved the tableside guacamole, shrimp tacos, and the Malbec braised short rib.
It’s hard to say what to enthuse more about here, the food or the drinks. In a relaxed environment, chef Bernie Kantak and company’s New American marries the inventive with the familiar. For starters, we sampled the crab cakes and the original chopped salad, which has its own Facebook page. The seared scallops are a fan favorite too, as are tipples from the barrel aged cocktail list, like the bourbon-based Rose Garland.
While the hotel itself is reminiscent of yesteryear, it was refreshing to see their on-site restaurant is firmly planted in today. Zuzu had a beautifully curated wine list and plenty of imaginative shared plates, courtesy of Executive Chef Russell LaCasce. The constantly shifting and always delightful dessert menu is worth saving room for.
Originally opened in 1956, Hotel Valley Ho has long been a go-to destination for out-of-towners. Back in the day, Hollywood starlets frequented the space for its privacy and charming mid-century design. As they say, everything and nothing has changed. After a couple of ownership shifts, the hotel was recently restored to its original splendor – though many of the interior elements have remained untouched since its inception. Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner would be pleased – they had their second wedding reception here.
Hyatt’s boutique arm of hotels (Andaz means “style” in Hindi) are known for paying homage to their surrounding environs. In Scottsdale, the Andaz mirrors the desert, and the artists and architects that have made it what it is today. The property sits on a single level and feels more country club commune than luxury hotel – in the best way. Poolside cabanas come attached to the more coveted suites. Be sure to stop by restaurant Warp and Weft, which features hand-made installations and ceramic dishes from Cattle Track artists. Executive Chef Nate Larson infuses his menu with seasonal Sonoran cuisine, every dish is inventive fresh, and full of Southwestern flavor.