PHOENIX — In the late 1920s, modern architect Frank Lloyd Wright arrived in Arizona to design a desert resort planned for the foothills of South Mountain, in what is now Ahwatukee.
To produce drawings for the project, Wright and his colleagues built a temporary settlement, called “Ocatillo,” near what is now 32nd Street and two-thirds of a mile north of what will be the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway. The name intentionally misspelled ocotillo, the desert plant that grew in abundance there.
While the stock market crash of 1929 ended Wright’s project, nearly a century later his connection to the area will influence how drivers experience the South Mountain Freeway.
Working with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, the Arizona Department of Transportation and its project team are honoring Wright as they design aesthetics for bridges, sound walls and other freeway elements.
“Frank Lloyd Wright had a strong presence at the base of South Mountain before Ahwatukee was even built,” said Joe Salazar, ADOT’s roadside development, project landscape and architecture coordinator. “Frank Lloyd Wright was inspired by Arizona’s desert surroundings, and the South Mountain Freeway will tell that story.”
One of the freeway’s five distinctive aesthetic character areas, between Ahwatukee Foothills and the Interstate 10/Loop 202 Santan Freeway interchange, is named for and influenced by Wright’s Ocatillo settlement. Simple materials in the patterns on architectural features in that freeway segment will celebrate that area’s desert landscape and vegetation.
And preliminary plans for the entire freeway call for using horizontal lines, featured in many of Wright’s designs, in different ways. The wood walls of Wright’s Ocatillo settlement featured bold horizontal lines to echo the desert floor and the area’s long horizons.
The South Mountain Freeway’s sound walls and retaining walls will have horizontal lines, in contrast with the vertical lines used along other Valley freeways.
“These horizontal lines evoke a sense of motion, a perfect complement to the energy of a freeway,” said architect Victor Sidy, who is working with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation on the project. “As one travels through the length of the freeway, these lines will serve as a connective thread that will narrate a story of transition from the city to the natural desert and back to the city.”
Aesthetics are an essential part of any ADOT design project, creating looks that complement the surroundings, help tell an area’s story and create a more appealing environment for drivers.
In addition to Ocatillo Settlement, the South Mountain Freeway’s distinctive aesthetic character areas will be: Cholla Ocotillo between Elliott Road and east of Desert Foothills Parkway; River Bank between the Salt River Bridge and Elliot Road; Leaf Portal between Roosevelt Avenue and the Salt River Bridge; and Mountain Urban Link between the I-10 (Papago Freeway)/Loop 202 interchange and Roosevelt Avenue.
There will be five associated landscape character areas – Ahwatukee Neighborhood, Ahwatukee Foothills, Laveen Village, Estrella Village and Interstate 10 Traffic Interchange – with specific plants, color accents, ground treatments and other elements.
Together, these character areas will tell stories by highlighting land use, land forms and history. The Ahwatukee Foothills/Cholla Ocotillo segment, for example, will feature desert plants and simple shapes based on the forms of native cholla and ocotillo cactuses, while aesthetics and landscaping in the Laveen Village/River Bank segment will speak to that area’s agricultural heritage.
In early November, plans to incorporate Wright’s influences brought ADOT’s landscape and aesthetics team, along with representatives of Connect 202 Partners, the development group designing and building the South Mountain Freeway, to Taliesin West in Scottsdale. The national historic landmark, Wright’s winter home until his death in 1959, is home to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.
With representatives of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, participants refined design plans for sound walls, bridges and other structures and drew further inspiration from Wright’s work. The refinements will be reflected in a landscape architecture and aesthetics design concept report developed with input from ADOT, Federal Highway Administration, city of Phoenix and Maricopa Association of Governments, the regional transportation planning agency.
Wright’s influence will be evident in other ways. In the Mountain Urban Link character area, for example, interlocking L-shapes planned for design elements are inspired by the work of both Wright and Paolo Soleri, the renowned modern architect behind Arcosanti and Cosanti in Arizona.
ADOT’s Salazar called the South Mountain Freeway a rare opportunity to create aesthetics and landscaping for an entire freeway corridor at once rather than in stages. That opportunity also creates a challenge that requires additional thought and consideration, Salazar added.
“We are thankful for the collaboration with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and others, including the Cosanti Foundation, to develop a freeway corridor that will tell stories as it enhances the quality of life in this region,” Salazar said.
The 22-mile freeway, expected to open by late 2019, will provide a long-planned direct link between the East Valley and West Valley and a much-needed alternative to I-10 through downtown Phoenix. Approved by Maricopa County voters in 1985 and again in 2004 as part of a comprehensive regional transportation plan, the South Mountain Freeway will complete the Loop 202 and Loop 101 freeway system in the Valley.