San Marcos In The Desert
SAN MARCOS IN THE DESERT,NEAR CHANDLER, ARIZONA, 1928-1929
In 1928, beset by personal and financial difficulties, Wright again found himself with little work. Showing uncharacteristic humility, he agreed to consult with a former apprentice on the design of the Arizona Biltmore. His trip to Phoenix to accomplish that task led to a major proposal for a similarly luxurious resort: San Marcos in the Desert. It was commissioned in early April by Alexander J. Chandler (1859-1950), one of the area's successful developers. Wright wrote to his son, "Phoenix seems to be the name for me too. . . . It looks as tho I was well started now for the last lap of my life and work." By May 1928 he had a scheme for the resort in mind.
Chandler's site of some 1,400 acres, located south of Phoenix at the base of the Salt River Mountains, offers close views to a foreground enclosed by low hills with framed views to a greater vista beyond - not unlike the sites for Doheny, for Lake Tahoe, and for Johnson. Wright emphasized these different depth - planes in his composition, reinforcing a residential typology in which protective elements of the visible surroundings were balanced with open views suggestive of limitless space.
Chandler responded positively to Wright's proposal; working drawings were completed in 1929, and favorable estimates augured well for construction. The stock market crash in October, however, doomed the project. Grossly insensitive residential development now obscures much of the site.
Hypothetical study model for San Marcos in the Desert
Surviving plans provide detailed information as to the shape and location of each component of the main resort, and historic surveys confirm local topography. Judicious cuts would have formed a harbor-like area just behind the entrance, at the end of the roadway, and a gentle grading of slopes near the building would have provided firm anchorage.
As became apparent in constructing the model, underlying patterns of the terrain were strengthened by Wright's additions of building and terrace, and the site would have achieved extraordinary definition through his knowing intervention. Two related designs (for the Cudney and Young houses) were not indicated in the overall plans, but their locations are suggested in perspectives, and drawings for each structure provided sufficient information to construct reasonable hypothetical study models.
Comparable information did not exist for other, more fragmentary elements
appearing in elevations and perspectives: these were not included in
the model, as they seemed to represent less decisive components of the
project. Perhaps they were sketched to suggest future development, including
both houses and recreational elements.
In January 1929, Wright, fascinated by the ephemerality that the desert suggested, built a temporary camp on a low mound south of the site for San Marcos. There, during the months that followed, he completed working drawings for the resort.
He called the camp "Ocatilla" after the giant desert shrub he so admired, and with low board walls defined an angled enclosure apart from the surrounding desert. A full-scale sample of the textile blocks for the resort was constructed, demonstrating the visual effects Wright expected to achieve. Working drawings were completed by late May, when Wright left for Taliesin.
In June, much of the camp was destroyed by fire. What remained gradually fell into ruin and disappeared. Yet it demonstrated how Wright approached the land even when no permanent structure was contemplated: as a place that could reach higher definition through understanding use.
An architectural theme based on the triangle . . . the mountains . . . rising behind triangles. The cross section of the Saguaro and all other desert plants - triangles . . . the building horizontally drifted between the rock ledges that terminate it. 1928
Fragment of full-scale maquette for textile blocks, San Marcos in
PERSPECTIVES AND PLANS FOR THE HOTEL
Out here obvious symmetry soon wearies the eye, stultifies the imagination before it begins. So, there should be no obvious symmetry in the building in the desert. ... The hard straight line breaks to the dotted line where stark necessity ends and thus allows appropriate rhythm to enter in order to leave suggestion. 1932, 1931 The resort was to be approached along an angled roadway embedded in a dry-bed or "wash" and leading through the outer walls of the building itself, again recalling the Johnson compound. At San Marcos, this opening for the roadway was partly framed by the lounges and main dining room, which bridged it, joining the low hills on each side.
A powerful and richly faceted vertical element - intended to enclose organ pipes - emphasized these central rooms. Low wings containing private suites stretched out on each side, terracing the natural slope of the hills. The angles of the existing contours as well as the desert setting suggested triangular shapes to Wright. The triangle became the project's ruling motif: his plan was infused with a rich angularity only suggested in his earlier work of the decade. By such angles the earth itself was brought into greater play with the building forms.
With his design for San Marcos, Wright conceived a unified, massively scaled yet informally shaped landscape of building, roadway, and terrain, leaving the predictable symmetries of conventional monumentality far behind. The sharply drawn lines of the terraces, with triangular terminations carried out into the desert, mark a clear division between cultivated and uncultivated plantings. As each ascending floor steps responsively back along the slope it adjoins, the roof terraces multiply, so that an architectural composition of connected planes results.
Out here obvious symmetry soon wearies the eye, stultifies the imagination before it begins. So, there should be no obvious symmetry in the building in the desert. . . . The hard straight line breaks to the dotted line where stark necessity ends and thus allows appropriate rhythm to enter in order to leave suggestion. 1932, 1931
INTERIOR PERSPECTIVES FOR THE HOTEL
The major public spaces of the resort were the main dining room and lounge at the centre of the complex. The dining room at the top was to have a richly faceted ceiling of copper and glass, recalling similar motifs in the dining room of the Imperial Hotel. The two-storey lounge was to be located below, over the automobile entrance at a lower level still. Throughout, glass and patterned concrete blocks were to be combined in ways that would have achieved the effect of a luminous mass.
WORKING DRAWINGS FOR THE HOTEL
Complete working drawings reveal extraordinary attention to detail. Plans and sections suggest the complexities of the triangular module that governed the design of the central core; the extended wings of rooms on three levels are comparatively simple, yet shaped to define individual spaces. Sections show how gently the wings would have reinforced their sloping site.
YOUNG AND CUDNEY HOUSES
In addition to the central resort, private houses were also to be part of the San Marcos development. Wright prepared designs for two: the Owen D. Young house (with some drawings inscribed "for Mrs. Owen D. Young"), and the Wellington and Ralph Cudney house. Both illustrate his continued exploration of block construction adapted to a desert setting.
In its general layout, the Young house resembled the Sachse project (gallery 5), but with an oculus recalling Wright's own desert studio (also gallery 5) added to its major room. Indicated on the drawings as a solarium, it was to be largely open at the centre. By aligning the blocks of its walls on a diagonal grid, Wright developed unusual triangular massing, and windows identical in shape and size to the individual blocks animated its massiveness.
In the Cudney house, Wright developed variations of hexagonal geometry; it was an intensification of shapes of the main hotel, effectively rendered to suggest a pattern of vibrating lines that appear to rise up out of the desert itself.
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