Wright's final design blends desert form, function
TEMPE, ARIZ. -- Wisconsin's most renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, designed buildings all over the world. But the last project Wright planned before he died in 1959, an opera house, probably wouldn't be standing today if it was built in its intended location -- in Baghdad, Iraq.
Instead, Wright's final design became Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium, a multifunctional performing arts facility on the campus of Arizona State University. The Tempe landmark looks nothing like Wright's early work in Spring Green, Oak Park or Milwaukee, but from the rounded bubblers to the custom-recessed grout to the 57 shades of terracotta paint, Gammage is 100 percent Frank.
The 3,000-seat auditorium is known throughout Arizona for its outstanding acoustics, but Wright buffs from around the world come to visit the dome-shaped building, says ASU's Lesley Davis. Almost every piece of Gammage remains original, she says, except for the updated carpeting and new window treatments that block the scorching Arizona sun.
Gammage is completely symmetrical and resembles a big top tent, or perhaps palm tree fronds from the outside, but it feels a bit like a ship on the inside. That's because the entire building is painted in shades of orange, except for turquoise portholes surrounding the interior wall scones. Those blue accents are the building's only contrasting color.
Even though it's nearly 50 years old, the building feels thoroughly modern. And the acoustics remain state-of-the-art, which is just another detail that the meticulous Wright didn't overlook during planning.
"The acoustics are absolutely exquisite," says Davis. "That is the gift he gave us."
The auditorium was actually built from 1962 to 1964, three years after Wright died. Its construction cost $2.5 million and was overseen by architects from Wright's Taliesin West, which still consults when the university seeks updates.
As Wright's only performing arts center, even the seating bowl is unique. The balconies aren't connected to the back wall, and with no pillars to block site lines, every seat is a good one.
Even though it was originally planned for Baghdad, the building has a look that is rooted in Southwest -- though architecture scholars contend that the auditorium flies in the face of Wright's assertion that each project should be built for its specific location.
Still, with a dual "figure eight" circular design, even sold-out performances quickly clear out onto campus in an orderly fashion. And consistent with Wright's style of incorporating natural design into his works, the exterior landscaping blends desert and tropical plants to form a consistent theme.
Davis says Wright was a supporter of ASU when he spent his later years at Taliesin West in Scottsdale. He was friends with then university president Grady Gammage, for whom the building was named. Today, students, as well as the community, can still enjoy Wright's legacy in a region where just a dozen of his projects were actually built.
And for Wright fans who've seen his earlier, Arts and Crafts and Prairie style buildings, Gammage is an interesting testament to the diverse breadth of his work.
Gammage Auditorium offers Monday tours, in addition to its regular schedule of performing arts. The Web site is asugammage.com. Its phone number is (480) 965-4050.
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Cozen Beguile said: Wright to me is an artist. Everything he did fits and becomes the landscape. PEACE!
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