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Easily Arizona State University’s most recognized building, Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium reflects the determined vision of Grady Gammage, president of Arizona State College, and Frank Lloyd Wright, world famous architect who had been wintering in Arizona since consulting on the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in 1928. Gammage was well aware of the architect’s work, notably Wright’s residence, office, and school at Taliesin West, northeast of Scottsdale, and had him in mind for a particular venue he envisioned for the institution.
The college’s mid-1950s master plan specified a future auditorium at the campus’s southwest corner. Wright confirmed this location on his first visit to the campus in May 1957 and after voters approved the college’s elevation to university status in November 1958, Gammage was able to pursue his dream of using that location to erect a building that might become a landmark for the school and a cultural focal point for the region. Wright, for his part, was eager to design a major public building in Arizona and had a concept already in mind, based on his recent but unrealized scheme for the Baghdad opera house. Unfortunately, both men died in 1959.
As the project moved forward, the decision was made to build the auditorium as a tribute to both the patron and the architect. Wright’s successor firm, Frank Lloyd Wright (now Taliesin) Associated Architects, revised the modified Baghdad design to meet the regent’s requirements, notably a budget capped at about $2,800,000. Classrooms, offices, and rehearsal halls were added to the scheme but many other elements from the Bagdad design were eliminated or further modified. Work on an adjoining Fine Arts Center was postponed indefinitely.
A shading circular colonnade is the most apparent surviving element of the Baghdad scheme, an appropriate holdover given the parallels between Tempe’s climate and Baghdad’s. The colonnade has slender columns supporting capitals resembling either parted curtains or an abstraction of the date palm trees lining the adjoining Tempe streets. Another explicit vestigial element is the way the circular arcs of the auditorium extend the geometry of the building into the site. Other features of Wright’s Baghdad design also remain, if less obviously. The building plan, based on interlocking circles, was an ideal complement to the Tempe site, bounded on the southwest by the sweeping arc of the state highway as it transitioned from Apache Boulevard on the south to Mill Avenue on the west. The academic additions faced northeast, back toward campus. The Baghdad building was to be surrounded by multi-level pools; in Tempe there is only a modest reflecting pool in front of the southwestern facade.
Primarily decorative in the Baghdad scheme, in the initial Tempe design, the processional side entry ramps provided pedestrian connections from flanking parking structures directly to the various seating levels within the building, leaving the surrounding plaza unobstructed. In the final ASU version, the ramps were much less prominent, but as built they still connect the main building with what became surrounding parking lots, while serving as visual anchors for the building’s mass. Open arches of tubular steel with a copper-infused coating, resting upon exposed aggregate concrete ramps, interlock and support light globes, themselves encircled and supported by similar tubular steel circles.
The auditorium’s renowned acoustics were largely the result of a collaboration among William Wesley Peters, lead project architect and Wright’s son-in-law; George Izenour, a Yale professor and innovate designer of theater technologies; and Vern O. Knudsen, a UCLA physicist and leading authority in architectural acoustics. The concave rear wall of the original scheme became a series of convex surfaces from which the grand tier was completely detached, allowing the audience to be surrounded by sound and providing all 3,017 seats unobstructed views of the stage. The ceiling also became a series of convex surfaces; the radial aisles were replaced by continental seating, which gave more seats in the prime areas better sight lines and acoustics. The designers also included a forestage lift and a stage enclosure, or shell, consisting of six telescoping squared arches.
Although Wright had originally envisioned reinforced concrete for the auditorium’s primary structure, budget constraints forced the adoption of a steel frame with brick and stucco veneer and some integrally colored pre-cast concrete elements. The fifty reinforced concrete columns around the circular colonnade were faced with “marblecrete,” plaster containing a rose-colored quartz aggregate; they support precast concrete ornamental capitals. Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, the architect’s widow, developed the auditorium’s palette of colors, textures, and interior materials, all of which are inspired by Arizona landscapes and geology.
Construction on the building finally began in May 1962; the auditorium was completed in June 1964, on time and budget. Eugene Ormandy conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra at the dedication that September.
In 1997, a partially below-grade, copper-trimmed garage was added to the auditorium, to accommodate the orchestra when performances (notably Broadway musicals like Phantom of the Opera) required a greater stage depth than Gammage originally provided. More recent additions, most of them relatively unobtrusive, have increased restroom capacity for women and enhanced wheelchair accessibility.
Actively used as a year-round performance venue, Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium remains Arizona State University’s signature building and a regional icon.
Arizona State University, “Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium,” Maricopa County, Arizona. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form 1985. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
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