April 15, 2019

I’m writing from a hotel in Desert Ridge, Phoenix, AZ. I flew here on Friday to surprise my parents; I’m flying back to London today. I have no deep qualm of conscience on this point, short though the visit was, because it meant that I at least got to see my parents before my wedding at the end of this month, which for reasons of miscommunication and our own ineptitude, they will not be able to attend.

Phoenix, in particular Scottsdale, is more interesting than I’d expected. What its sculpture lacks in diversity of subjects it more than makes up for in variations in treatment. We found the art shops interesting, and the restaurants nice, if a little anodyne.

Taliesin West, where Frank Lloyd Wright set up shop to avoid winter and pneumonia in Wisconsin, has become a tiny (~30 student) architecture university. It is a place that is a true statement of vision, constructed according to one man’s principles. It continues to allow this man, now dead, to display the many aspects of his mastery over the elements, and the elements of his art, which was domestic architecture.

He rarely relented on wishing the place to be constructed of local materials, to blend into the local landscape, though he did compromise and allow windows, eventually, in concession to his third wife’s entreaties, to keep out the dust and desert wildlife. (Previously all the buildings had been open to the elements.) The students must build their own shelters to attend the university. Particularly impressive is the cabaret, in imitation of what he had seen in Weimar Berlin. Any picture is bound to distort it, and perhaps these are worse than most, but they’re still worth a look.

After that we went, on the tourguide’s advice, to see the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, designed in 1929 by one of Wright’s students, Albert Chase McArthur. Wright consulted for some time on the hotel, and it reminded me of Ennis House in Los Angeles, which I had not realised was also designed by Wright. The hotel is impressive but understated in a way, with the low ceilings which Wright liked. (Being 5’6” or so, as well as a spendthrift, he said that any space about 6’ was wasted material.) Most presidents since Hoover have stayed there, as did Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Marilyn Monroe, and so on. It made me wonder whether the other cast members from The Misfits had been there as well, in those tragic early ’60s. The staff was kind, showing us a bar where, during Prohibition, a signal from the opulent Aztec Room could alert the bartenders, who could rotate the bar around to show bookshelves. Something about its Native American influence reminded me of The Shining. It also evidently was where Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas”, and the Tequila Sunrise cocktail was invented.

Otherwise Phoenix is clean, there are fewer homeless than either Los Angeles or London, and in general it seems like a good life, perhaps not so different from Orange County. The weather was mild while I was here, 20–30° C mostly, and of course sunny, though it did rain a bit on Friday night.

The main reason for my being here, to surprise my parents, went swimmingly, they were surprised and very happy, as was I. It was well worth the jetlag and disruption that long travel often entails.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.