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Retrospective: Vernon D. Swaback - Architect, 1997 Master of the Southwest

Author: Roberta Landman
Issue: March, 2013, Page 136
Photo by Chris Loomis

Swaback stands in his home’s cedar-walled passageway. He designed the overhead steel planters, and, behind him, the abstract three-dimensional mural of an agave. Beneath the high cedar-planked ceiling is a loft space.


In 1957, at the age of 17, an overjoyed Vernon D. Swaback left Chicago’s inner city to live his dream. With a year of architectural studies at the University of Illinois under his belt, he became an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, the winter headquarters for the school Wright had created in Wisconsin.

Like other apprentices, Swaback designed and built his own living quarters, an 8-foot by 8-foot red canvas tent of Arabian Nights splendor. He was delighted. Learning about sustainability from the ground up, he dug material for concrete out of desert washes to hand-build structures at Taliesin.    

Today a sought-after architect and planner, Swaback says he thought he would be with Wright for a year but happily stayed for 21. Although Wright passed away in 1959, Swaback remained on board at Taliesin West and ultimately became a registered architect with Taliesin Architects. He formed his own company in 1978, and later served as chairman of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

A prolific writer with nine books to his credit, Swaback lives how he believes everyone ought to be able to—with his wife in a comfortable home he loves to come back to. He designed the house and calls it Skyfire, for during sunrises and sunsets, “the sky above it lights up like fire.” He also designed several pieces of furniture there, Contemporary art indoors and out, lighting, planters and more.

Skyfire is composed of architect Vernon D. Swaback’s north Scottsdale home and guest house. The weathered-steel driveway gate with art-glass inserts, and the distant arch of red timbers, with its Skyfire sign, speak to his philosophy of having “the welcoming character of the home start long before arriving at the front door.”
The home is sustainable, with 12-inch-thick concrete walls and clever measures to curb the need for air conditioning; it is a physical reflection of ideas Swaback has suggested in books such as The Custom Home: Dreams, Desire, Design (Images Press, 2001), and Creating Value, Smart Development and Green Design (The Urban Land Institute, 2007).

Among kudos, Swaback has been inducted into the College of Fellows of both the American Institute of Architects and the American Institute of Certified Planners, and has been a Phoenix Home & Garden Master of the Southwest since 1997. He is founder of Swaback Partners (formerly Vernon Swaback Associates); its staff of 30 includes nine who are registered in fields of architecture, planning, landscape architecture or interior design.

Along with architect partners John E. Sather and Jon C. Bernhard, and Katherine Pullen, director of the firm’s interior design component, Swaback has seen the company routinely win local, regional and national honors. Among notable award-winning projects are the 1,040-acre Arizona Biltmore Estates in Phoenix and the 8,000-acre DC Ranch community in north Scottsdale.

Swaback’s architectural efforts reflect his own creativity and his admiration for Wright’s thinking on such matters as sustainability, the importance of nature, and the development of communities with architecture and amenities that foster people’s sense of well-being. Of Wright, Swaback says, “He tapped into something fundamental to the needs of a human being.”

The architect recently designed this distinctive bronze stairway for a home in  Connecticut. Flanked by a curved stone wall, the stairway features open treads and glass rails. A circular skylight in the rounded ceiling is a dramatic element and source of light.
Swaback, too, has done that, according to Charley Freericks, president of DMB Associates Inc. The company developed DC Ranch and its adjacent community, Silverleaf, with Swaback heading up overall planning. “Vern had a lot of influence in what we do in community development.”

Architect Dale Gardon, likewise a Phoenix Home & Garden Master of the Southwest, played a major role in the planning of DC Ranch during the 13-year period he worked at Swaback Associates. Now principal of his own firm, he says of the architect: “I have not worked with anyone else since who has had the innate ability to enrich and enliven the human spirit through design as he does.”

A lecturer and engaged in documentaries for educational TV, Swaback currently is excited at the prospect of a new architectural venture. It is a plan for creating homes in sustainable communities across 27,000 square miles of the Navajo Nation. “What is thrilling about that is we are meeting their dreams for how they want to care for their children,” he remarks.

Never one to rest on past glories, Swaback continues to evolve and, in the process, deepen his considerable mark on the Southwest.

A counter-height stainless steel and bronze fireplace warms the kitchen of a Connecticut home designed by architect Vernon Swaback. Countertops and the island’s surface are Italian hand-selected Caragrande marble; millwork is rosewood; and flooring is sapele mahogany and marble.

A stone wall incorporating a water feature provides a welcoming element at the stone-faced entry of Swaback’s Connnecticut project.
A Swaback-designed guest suite entry door at this same residence is made of inlaid sapele mahogany with a sculptural stainless steel handle.

The exterior of this north Scottsdale Swaback-designed home dubbed Desert Arrow is defined by integrally colored fluted masonry.
The expansive outdoor living area at the home includes an in-pool spa. The stylized chimney is made of masonry and enamelized black sheet metal, like the roofing material.
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