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Masters of the Southwest Update - Looking Back to the Future

Author: Katherine Adomaitis
Issue: September, 2017, Page 32
Photos by Paul Markow

The exterior of Vernon Swaback’s family home, Skyfire, in Scottsdale. His design includes dramatic roof overhangs that shelter the patio and large expanses of view-grabbing windows.
Looking Back to the Future

For renowned architect Vernon D. Swaback, the secret of good home design originates with community

On a warm afternoon, architect and city planner Vernon D. Swaback leads a tour of his rambling 14,000-square-foot Scottsdale office. Taking shortcuts through the courtyard, lush with waist-high Mexican honeysuckle, Swaback, a 1997 Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner, pauses to quiz some of the 50-plus staffers who make up Swaback Partners.

The strong lines of Skyfire’s contemporary architecture are warmed by the cedar-plank walls and ceiling, giving the interiors a rustic, welcoming character. Swaback relaxes in the home’s living room with his dog, Bravo.
“What are you working on?” he asks as he moves from desk to desk. The answers reveal scores of projects underway, ranging from a 25,000-acre master-planned community in California and golf clubhouses across the country to a penthouse in New York City for a celebrity, homes in Cabo San Lucas and numerous hotel interiors.

Swaback’s purpose is to point out “the miracle” of the architecture, planning and interiors firm he founded in 1978 that has taken on a life of its own, which Swaback attributes to surrounding himself with talented people, such as his partners, including architects John Sather and Jon Bernhard.

And then there’s Swaback’s new book—his 12th—“Designing for the Life of Community at a Time of Great Change,” in which he ponders the challenges of creating community and culture, ruminating on everything from the shared-ownership trends that millennials have embraced (think Uber and Airbnb) and the tiny house movement to intentional and retirement communities.

A teenage Swaback poses between Frank Lloyd Wright and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley during that city’s “Frank Lloyd Wright Day” in 1956.
Clearly, Swaback relishes talking about the present, not to mention the future. But at 78, his own history is worth a book—or two.

Born at the tail end of the Depression in Chicago, Swaback became interested in architecture thanks to a high-school drafting teacher who brought in books and magazines on the topic, including the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. “We lived near Oak Park,” recalls Swaback, “and I remember seeing Wright’s houses there, which were utterly amazing.” When Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley declared a “Frank Lloyd Wright Day” in the city in 1956, Swaback made his way to the festivities, even appearing, Zelig-like, in a photograph between Wright and Daley.

By 1957, Swaback dropped out of the University of Illinois to become an apprentice with Wright, taking a train to Phoenix and a long drive on mostly dirt roads to Taliesin West, Wright’s architectural community in the Scottsdale desert. He worked directly with the master architect until Wright’s death in 1959 and stayed on at Taliesin until 1977, when he decided to start his own business.

This Swaback-designed interior door is made of inlaid sapele mahogany with a sculptural steel handle.
Swaback had signed leases on an apartment and office space—but quickly realized he was in over his head. “I had no idea how dependent I was on Taliesin support after 21 years of living there,” he explains. He returned to Taliesin for another year.

In 1978, he struck out on his own again, this time on a much smaller scale. “I stayed in someone’s pool house,” Swaback recalls. “I had a drafting table at one end and I slept in the other.”

But he had come out of Taliesin with several big projects, including master-planning and architecture for the town of Kohler, Wisconsin, and master-planning for the Arizona Biltmore Estates in Phoenix. Soon, his one-person firm grew—Sather and Bernhard both joined in 1978—and the work came in steadily: custom residences, golf clubhouses, commercial buildings and planning projects for the likes of DC Ranch. The awards soon followed, including design recognition for Swaback’s family’s home in Scottsdale and their weekend retreat on the Mogollon Rim. He also became a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and of the American Institute of Certified Planners. Along the way, Swaback served as CEO and chair of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and spearheaded Scottsdale Visioning, a community-driven project that looked into the future of the city’s development and character.

Swaback’s drawing for an entry gate details the concrete, glass and steel materials to be used.
And the future is where Swaback likes to focus, brushing off his past accolades to focus on design projects, such as recent residences in Paradise Valley and Connecticut, but steering clear of other Swaback partners’ work. “I don’t ‘oversee’ anyone,” he says. “I’ve chosen to work with people who can do things as well or better than me, so I get out of the way and move on to other projects.”

His partners also share his vision. “I’ve been working with Vern for 44 years,” notes Sather, a graduate of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. “We know how each other think, and that shows in our projects. We’ve developed a symbiotic relationship that allows us exemplify the concept of organic architecture.”

Buildings aside, Swaback prefers to look at the big picture of design and planning and how it can help develop solid communities, hence his most recent book, written and rewritten in longhand. He’s also founded Two Worlds Community Foundation, a nonprofit think tank aimed at building strong, sustainable communities by sponsoring such projects as global community design competitions and offering other nonprofits assistance in programming, planning and development.   

The architect has played the trumpet for decades, including a stint with the Phoenix Symphony.
“Architecture–someone’s home–is just a small piece of the puzzle,” says Swaback. “I’m a crusader for healthy, flexible, better ways of living—for what you can do beyond your own house.”

Swaback still has many projects to tackle, including books. “Frank Lloyd Wright wrote 14 books,” he points out, “so I am still behind.” One future volume hits close to home. His wife of 35 years has asked him to write his personal history for their two young adult daughters, a generational gift. “That could take me a very long time,” he laughs.

In the meantime, though, there is no talk of retirement, no leisurely afternoons of golf or puttering around in a garden. “Why?” he asks. “Every day, I come in to my office and witness the miracle of my firm and its people. That’s what keeps me going.”

The stylized chimney of Desert Arrow in Scottsdale is made of masonry and enamalized black sheet metal, like the roofing material.

Tensile fabric shades are anchored to sculptural pillars and the roof overhangs at Desert Arrow, providing a splash of color to the setting.

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