TRAVEL / American utopias in the sand: Architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri found inspiration in the Arizona desert. Geoff Nicholson visits their futuristic visions to find out how they are faring

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The Independent Culture
THE DAY I went to visit Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's monument in Arizona, was the day a CBS team chose to film there. Our party, kept deliberately small and given a particularly good guide, was filmed as we made the rounds of the property, and it soon became apparent that the crew was far more interested in the people on the tour than in Frank Lloyd Wright's structures. A week or so later, on Sunday morning TV, there I was - nodding sagely, observing intensely and looking highly self-conscious as I was conducted around the estate, like a pilgrim at some holy shrine.

Wright set up Taliesin West in the late 1930s as a winter camp for his students. When he bought the estate's 600 acres of land, it was raw, barren desert, a very long way from 'civilisation', specifically from the towns of Phoenix and Scottsdale. That has changed. The urban sprawl has edged right out to the boundary of the estate. But while developers try to turn the desert into a series of neat, private, well-watered plots, Taliesin West remains an architectural gem set in the desert, a kind of anti-oasis.

Frank Lloyd Wright is America's most famous architect. Like Christopher Wren in this country, he is the first and probably the only architect most of his countrymen can name. And one way or another, this is his year. There's a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a number of his buildings made headlines when they were damaged in the Los Angeles earthquake.

To get to Taliesin West you drive along Cactus Road, through Scottsdale, akind of suburbia on steroids - vast ranch-style houses with stabling for horses, 20ft saguaro cacti beside the front porch, and gardens that require a small team of Mexicans to tend them. You cross Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, pass through red iron gates and find yourself driving up an immaculate, black curving road with wild desert flora on either side. And then you see Taliesin West.

It is a strangely inconspicuous and unphotogenic place. There are no spectacular views to be had, no breathtaking vistas. Taliesin West is not one building but a complex of rugged yet beautiful structures that includes a studio, staff apartments, a library, a pavilion and a cabaret theatre. The low, wide structures hug the ground, horizontal shapes in a horizontal landscape. They are angular and rough. Lines that aren't horizontal tend to be diagonals. There are few straight uprights and no curves.

Taliesin West is not only built in the desert, but out of the desert. The site itself provided materials for the construction; there were rocks and sand in abundance, but the stone couldn't be cut into usable slabs or bricks, so loose clusters of rock were held in temporary wooden forms and the sand was used to make concrete which was poured in around the stone. The wood was then removed and reused to form the next piece of wall. The finished walls look like incredibly rich fruit cake, more fruit than cake, and of course they have the same shapes, colours and textures as the land.

In addition, Frank Lloyd Wright used redwood beams for support, and canvas blinds to keep out the sun. Some of the canvas has been replaced with plastic materials; while at one time Wright wanted no glass in the place, the current structure has plenty of windows and glass doors. Yet one doesn't feel that the original conception has been betrayed, rather that the current users of the buildings (the Taliesin Fellowship and Taliesin Architects) have adapted it to their current needs.

These days FrankLloyd Wright is occasionally mocked as the maker of buildings with leaky roofs, but essentially he is revered as a visionary and a great American artist. And why not? He had certain difficulties in his lifetime, but essentially he was a success. He built buildings, he made money, he had a high public profile. There are other kinds of visionary architect who haven't had it so good.

Just a couple of miles from Taliesin West there is a curious workshop-cum-foundry-cum craft shop, called Cosanti. Profits from the wind bells and sculptures it sells go to fund an extremely ambitious architectural project called Arcosanti, a city of the future conceived by Paolo Soleri, a man who was briefly a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.

And the city of the future is here, sort of, about 70 miles north of Phoenix, off Interstate 17, past a sad collection of buildingsthat make up a place called Cordes Junction, and then a couple of miles along a dirt road. There's a 'drive slowly' sign, but you don't need telling - the road is potholed and in places scrapes the bottom of your car. 'If this guy's such a red-hot architect,' you wonder, 'how come he can't even organise a decent access road?'

Arcosanti is Soleri's vision of how future generations might live: in compact, high density, hive-like structures where there will be no need for cars nor even public transport; distances will be short, with moving pavements to convey people around. The city will, of course, be ecologically sound, big on solar power and recycling. Above all, it will be surrounded by vast areas of farmland and wilderness. This is not precisely what you find at Arcosanti.

What you dofind is a complex, fussy tangle of structures, mostly made of concrete. There is one solid, chunky, more or less conventional-looking block of a building that houses a restaurant, bakery and gallery, but stretching away from it, reaching out across the desert, is a series of arches - some free-standing, some like the mouths of caves, some filled in with windows and doors. Elsewhere the shapes are those of simple building blocks: the square, the cube, the circle, the hemisphere.

It looks wild and weird, but above all it looks unfinished - as indeed it is. Arcosanti is a work in progress, and progress is slow. After 20 years, only 3 per cent is finished. It has a rough, temporary look about it, part stage set, part camp site, a visual style somewhere between Woodstock and Mad Max.

The building method at Arcosanti has something in common with Frank Lloyd Wright's at Taliesin West. Again the desert sand has been used to make concrete, but Soleri has employed a technique called silt- casting. This consists of creating a dome, arch or apse out of solid earth, pouring concrete over it and then, when it is set, removing the earth to leave a concrete structure.

The concrete is painted in places, there are flags blowing on the roof, there are canvas awnings and glass roofs. Nevertheless, Arcosanti is not a pretty place. It has the feel of a Sixties university campus out of term - barren and windswept, a place that people are passing through and only provisionally claiming as their own. As with so many futuristic visions it seems firmly of its period, speaking of idealistic hippiedom as well as of the space age.

It is the soaring ambition of Arcosanti that makes its current state look so pitiable. Envisaged as a city for 5,000 people, it currently holds about 50, many of them apprentices paying for the privilege of being and working there.

Extraordinarily over-endowed with stages and performance spaces, it is dreadfully lacking in other urban necessities, such as clothes stores, supermarkets, newsagents. There are a surprising number of signs around telling the visitor where he or she can and can't go. It is understandable that the inhabitants don't want intrusive gawpers, but a city with designated no-go areas seems futuristic in the worst sense. Furthermore, it has to be said that people aren't exactly flocking to live in this utopia.

And yet, and yet . . . Soleri does seem to be addressing a very real problem. America has a lot of space and is proud of the fact, but every day it has a little bit less. The encroachment of the city around Taliesin West is spectacular, but by no means unusual. Current architectural thinking aims to give everyone their own home on a fenced patch of land, a style that can be found even in some of America's ghettos. And while this is apparently what people want, a growing population and an active building industry suggest that sooner or later, even a country as vast as America is in danger of becoming one giant, continuous suburb.

There is some crucial opposition at stake here. Do we try to live happily in close proximity with our neighbours, or do we put as much distance as possible between them and ourselves - a distance that inevitably is not going to be so very great, and which needs to be reinforced with high walls, hedges, fences, barbed wire and security systems?

Paolo Soleri wants to preserve a distinction between town and country, between urban and rural. If people can tolerate each other'spresence on a day-to-day basis, then there will still be vast wildernesses for them to retreat to. If people insist on turning the wilderness into literally their own backyard there will be nowhere for them to get away to, and any tiny pockets of wilderness that are preserved will be no more than highly regulated theme parks.

Both Taliesin West and Arcosanti encourage and need visitors. At Taliesin West, as well as the standard guided tour, you can also do 'behind the scenes' tours, desert hikes, private one-to-one visits with an architect or Taliesin artist. About 30,000 tourists a year come to take a look at Arcosanti, pay their five dollars and help support the project. There are even on-site guest rooms. However while people visit Taliesin West as a sort of architectural holy site, they tend to visit Arcosanti in the spirit of dumb curiosity: 'Let's see what those weird hippies are up to these days.'

The night after I visited Arcosanti I watched an episode of The Brady Bunch on TV, where the father is trying to encourage one of his sons to follow in his footsteps as an architect. The son has no desire to do so, and begins designing buildings of such idiocy and incompetence that his father has to admit that his son has no talent. In an age when nobody seems to know what good architecture is, I was ready for the designs to be hailed as the work of a visionary. But no, the father gives in and says to his son, 'I guess you're just Frank Lloyd Wrong.'

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: STA (071-937 9971) flies to Phoenix: prices start from pounds 486 during August and pounds 406 from

1 September. Northwest Airlines (0293 561000) flies London to Phoenix via Minneapolis or Boston; from 1 September fares start at pounds 427 midweek and pounds 444 weekends.

CAR HIRE: Thrifty Car Rental (0494 442110) does a middle-range hire car for about pounds 100 per week. Alamo (0800 272200) hire cars start at pounds 69 a week for their smallest car, pounds 120 a week for a Buick. All cars hired are usually subject to local taxes, which may include state, airport and vehicle tax. There is often a nominal surcharge per car per day, so check all these details when booking.

PACKAGE TOURS: Jetsave (0342 327711) offers a two- week fly-drive trip starting from pounds 515 per person in September, and accommodation in Phoenix starting from pounds 13 per person per night.

TOURS AND ACCOMMODATION: Taliesin West, the organisation which includes the Taliesin Fellowship and Taliesin Architects, offers a variety of organised tours around Taliesin West, including group tours and private personal tours.

There is a recorded message which gives details of the organisation and tour information (0101 602 860 8810). To make a reservation, or for other information, call 0101 602 860 2700. It can also provide a list of accommodation in Scottsdale. Best Western (0800 393 130) can provide a variety of different-priced accommodation in Phoenix.

FURTHER INFORMATION: The Phoenix tourist board has just opened an office in the UK: JT Enterprises, Worth Corner, Pound Hill, Crawley, West Sussex RH10 7SL (0891 616000); or telephone direct: 0101 602 254 6500.

(Photographs and map omitted)

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