Welcome to a Business

I visited a former coworker at his office my first days of relocating to Scottsdale.


Swaback Partners work was somewhat familiar to me reading online and in print. This trip I learned about founder Vernon Swaback’s connection to Frank Lloyd Wright, as his youngest apprentice in 1957. Also for many years, “Desert Excellence” has been in my library, a booklet extoling the desert landscape for various development forms, coauthored by Swaback and Steve Martino.

Their office building was formerly a residence, but Swaback converted it into offices for their firm and another design office or two. It’s off a major arterial street, yet when one enters their parking, the traffic bustle melts into a relaxed design hustle.



I’m told that Ten Eyck’s office designed the landscape seen here, though it looks different than much of their other work I know of.

This entry exemplifies bold yet relaxing. Once the colors of the Sonoran Desert spring disappear into summer’s burning rest period, this will become subtle.


Each door into the inward-facing offices is a work of art, using mass and graciousness.


The scale here is personal yet massive.


Some architects go overboard on massive to where their work becomes a cold fortress, devoid of life. Probably a reflection of their personalities! Here, the concrete seat walls, for example, have a nice reveal and shadow to them, and they work with the generous use of cacti. Yes, CACTI!

Of course, this grew in; I wish I could see the entire landscape when it was newly planted. It probably started as 1 and 5 gallons, even with key area placement of larger cacti and a specimen tree or two.

This feels like it belongs in the desert; it’s of the desert, not merely in it.


The plantings are informal, a style typical of Arizona. Though this manner of informal isn’t that common here or neighbor New Mexico, where the designer knows how to mass and direct views towards focal points, while being naturalistic.

So much landscaping has no focal point or massing, made illegible. Like flower gardens without any structure, missing entirely the models of what those classic gardens did long ago via hedges, borrowed views, sculpture, and evergreen plants used purposely.

Not here.

Justicia spigera / Mexican Honeysuckle (thanks Misti) Hamelia patens / Mexican Firebush? I dunno, I’m a Chihuahuan not a Sonoran… It’s a hummingbird plant, and with several hummingbird species that reside in the low desert even in winter, that’s important.



Ponds are not normally my thing, but this is. What helps? It uses well-placed boulders, a serene nature (no fake waterfalls!), and appropriate riparian plants like Muhlenbergia rigens / Deergrass.


In fact, plantings here were not an afterthought…score!

I wish more design offices paid attention to the site and landscape in their own facilities, not to mention their projects. Instead of feeling like a corporate sweatshop in tilt-up building hell, Swaback has a restful oasis to design and restore one’s creative nature.

FLW Found Objects

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Talliesen West, or at least the curator staff, makes use of found objects on the vast property in the right place. Maybe FLW did as a touch of whimsy, too.

Once you live in the desert, our own whimsy is kind of fun.

At least the non-venomous kind. But if that whimsy is placed outside, never, never bring it back inside. Never!


Perhaps it’s a southwestern desert thing, to embed rocks, keys, or jewels in poured concrete. But I like it.


This is what Loree might use in a spare dish on a layout table, if she were a teaching architect inviting her winter students into the layout room. Joints from the ever-vicious Cylindropuntia biglovii.


“This is going to hurt you more than it will hurt me, interns!”


A large Acoma pot behind the other pot. There was more than one Kachina doll around the house, which I had in my previous home’s decor by themselves.



Even a Mammilaria cactus growing out of a gritty wall gap, and it’s alive!


The docent was talking about it being an Ocotillo, so hopefully her FLW knowledge is tighter! Who knows?


Do you collect objects around your garden or wild areas, then incorporate them into your decor?

I must admit, I have some blue rocks from my area’s once-active volcano, but no ideas where to use them. Mostly no objects to salvage once I move back, just sand!

Wright On

Since I was a college sophomore in OU’s “intro to design” course, I’ve enjoyed the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. (FLW)

FLW was ahead of his time.



I also enjoyed his followers’ works in the prairie / woods settings of central Oklahoma (Bruce Goff), and other different ecologies around the country. But seeing his work in the desert, where I’ve recently learned of his students’ outdoor learning conducted on-site, I gained a new appreciation.


Not sure one could have such a boulder nowadays, anywhere in NM and AZ. I wonder what the local Salt River-Pima-Maricopa people think of this located here.

I hope they at least get free admission here at any time, and have it closed on days they want to revere what their ancient works are about, and wander in the desert to their heart’s content, just like the pueblos finally get to do at Petroglyph National Monument in ABQ.

As a first generation American, I am quite serious about the first people’s place here.


The wayfinding signage is quite good.



He used extensive turfgrass on one side. I’ve heard mixed things on his landscape designs, but when you see this entire property, then it makes sense.


Great steps leading to another sculptural petroglyph boulder.


The concrete / imbedded rock bands are a nice touch.


Chihuahuan Desert and Madrean yuccas used…now I feel at home.


I liked the narrow paving bands while there; writing this I’m now unsure. #hypercritical


The moon gate for the kids…he had 7+.



My visit was on a pleasant, relatively normal 90F Sunday afternoon in late spring. With AC inside, knowing the third “Mrs. Wright” waited 10 years to get indoor bathrooms and AC installed.


From their bedroom and fireplace (no central heating) to the bathroom. This is about 1/4 the size of my master bath at my home in Las Cruces, but then again, I don’t have stainless steel wall-to-wall.


I do have central heating, which makes Nov-April post-shower drying pleasurable, right to my warm towels.


An outdoor water feature / shallow pool



Then there’s the grand finale to me: a huge, wood-burning fireplace inside the massive, shaded cavern from the low desert sun and glare.


And this view out…


Now change the focus and light exposure, to see that distant view…



His work proves his careful study of form with function, not just form’s dominance.

FLW was apparently a “chick magnet”, not lacking some negative traits that comes with that. Yet, he also seemed down-to-earth, teachable, and approachable, unlike some of the unapproachable divas / divos populating some ranks in architecture and art.

Not that I have had the temptation of offing a few of the above; my former career was just dandy with so much fair, respectful treatment, always both ways. <sarcasm>

In some circles, LAs included, the practice of rubber-stamping a design onto totally different landforms or climates is the bottom of the barrel. Like uppity-hippie contrians who luck into influence in horticulture, please do us a favor before you expire…retire and write fiction, not fiction as fact.

There! I’m more onto you than what you fear others see.

Others who’s works I’ve seen over the decades, actual architects or designers who somehow had the word “architecture” applied to them yet without registration to use that title / act, often miss critical parts of their designs like the land. (think Donald Judd in Marfa or Robert Irwin) They and their teary-eyed disciples miss what any desert designer worth their salt considers as a given: passive water harvesting, habitat, durable materials, economy, and native plant species, especially lower water-use ones.

Dear G*d they miss the importance of the actual land!

FLW got site before site savvy was cool. Compare Falling Water in wet, continental, and mid-latutude forest western Pennsylvania to Talliesen West in arid, southwetern, and subtropical desert Scottsdale.

I can’t wait to read up on him more, including the book on his relationships with his wives over the years. Three Mrs. Wrights may make up for some wrongs?


His foundation preserved this vast foreground of Sonoran Desert perfection, though the new development to the right and far beyond looks much like my part of Las Cruces, houses all with broad porches peering out into the desert valley.



Imagine what FLW would have altered from the above with siting and outdoor environments in arid, warm-temperate Albuquerque and Las Cruces…or sub-humid, subtropical Austin…or semi-arid, continental-bipolar Denver…or arid, continental Reno or Boise…and so on.

I doubt it would be a grid of lollipop trees or succulents in cor-ten in front of an off-white adobe, bought at $30K in ruins then being sold a decade later post-renovation at $750K in minimalist iconagraphy.  (nothing personal, nouvelle Marfans)


Better yet, what would you do? Ponder that whether it was your money, or it was your design expertise with someone else’s money.


Polka dots of palo verdes, everywhere



No turfgrass used anywhere else…brownie points from Dave!


Without the constantly overt desert southwest imagery, his own sculptures are great. I assume they are all his design, as were placement of his boulders with petroglyphs, and he designed many of his furnishings, possibly down to his clothing for all I know.

His sculptures are very influenced by the southwest, yet his own style, too.


Yes, my old friend Opuntia engelmannii




So, there’s yet another semester course digest, and another perfect weather day to savor, before “it” arrives soon enough!


5/1/19 weather:
83F / 60F / 0.00 or 28c / 16c / .00