Vernon Swaback is sitting in a small, sunlit studio, his mother on his right and his father on his left. A door opens and Frank Lloyd Wright walks in. He asks the 17-year-old Swaback why he wants to leave the University of Illinois. “They are beginning to teach preconceived ideas,” Swaback tells him. There is a beat. Then Wright looks at Swaback’s mother, then at his father, and eventually says, “Where does he get it? From you? Or from you?”
The conversation continued, but Swaback knew then that the interview was over and that his life was about to be changed forever. He became a member of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship, the youngest person ever to be invited in.
His answer had impressed Wright. What enabled the young man to give such an audacious response? When asked about it, Swaback defers to Wright’s own power. “When you’re in the presence of a man like that, you’re inspired not to give an ‘aw-shucks-I-don’t-know-type’ answer.” After meeting Swaback, however, it’s clear that’s not the whole truth. Something in Vernon Swaback enabled him to reply the way he did. It was the difference between intimidation and inspiration.
The indefinable ability to form a fresh perspective is what has set Swaback apart throughout his accomplished career as an architect and planner. His firm, Swaback Partners, is responsible for some of the most significant planning projects in Arizona’s history, including the award-winning Arizona Biltmore Estates. He is a registered architect in 15 states and has been inducted into the College of Fellows by both the American Institute of Architects and the American Institute of Certified Planners. A life, however, isn’t defined by a list of accomplishments, and Vern Swaback responds to questions about his life and legacy with his most candid response—bewilderment.
Before the young Swaback found himself in that Wisconsin studio with his parents, he had met a few of Wright’s apprentices at the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago on October 17, 1956, which Mayor Richard J. Daley proclaimed to be Frank Lloyd Wright Day. That night, during a dinner in his honor, Wright proposed his famous Mile High Building. The Illinois, if built, would have been four times the height of the Empire State Building. At the dinner, Wright’s apprentices told Swaback if he wanted to meet the great architect that he should send him a letter. Swaback was a student at the University of Illinois at the time, and he sent the letter. Eventually arrangements were made for an interview at Taliesin, the summer home of Wright and his fellowship.
Convincing his religious parents to drive him up to meet the man—whom some perceived to be flamboyant—at the site of an infamous murder wasn’t easy, Swaback recalls, but he was ultimately successful. After being invited to apprentice with Wright, Swaback left the university and became immersed in a creative world he’d become interested in as a boy, long before he knew the word ‘architecture’ or the name Frank Lloyd Wright.
Swaback’s holistic views on sustainability were formed during that time spent with the Taliesin Fellows, migrating from Wisconsin in the summer to Arizona and Taliesin West in the winter. “I won’t live as sustainably as that ever again,” Swaback says. “We didn’t have low-E glass or solar panels or any of the other bells and whistles,” explaining that instead he and the others experienced an unmatched feeling of connection to nature and the elements while sleeping in tents and working outside. When they worked on the building of Taliesin West they used stone available on the site and made concrete from sand where they slept. “Some people would think of it as a hardship, sleeping in a tent, but I could work until midnight and not have to commute anywhere,” Swaback says. “I’d walk out under the dark and the stars and sleep with the fresh air blowing over me.”
The communities at Taliesin and Taliesin West had such a feeling of community and intellectual connectivity that Swaback expressed feelings of anxiety driving through towns and cities in the Midwest while they traveled during the change of the seasons. “I thought ‘What if I got stuck in this town?’” he recalls. “It was a feeling that I would be cut off from life, which was odd because where I was going was a place in the middle of the desert, a place much more remote. But it was a hotbed of international knowledge and awareness.” Swaback certainly believes that the technology we employ today is incredible and useful but maintains his thesis that sustainability is much more dependent on human behavior than anything technology can produce. “Technology is an amplifier rather than a solution,” he says. “It allows us to do whatever our natural tendencies are, but at a greater scale, whether those tendencies are good or bad.”
Swaback had been an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright for just more than two years when Wright died on April 9, 1959. Swaback chose to stay on at the Wright Foundation. He stayed for 21 years. He eventually became its director of planning and oversaw some of the foundation’s most significant architectural projects.
For Swaback, the question whether or not to stay was an easy one. “There was never any struggle over staying or going,” he says. “I didn’t even think about it until 20 years had passed. Then the real struggle was leaving. By then it had become my schooling, my work, my home, and my life.” Swaback left the foundation when he was 38 years old. “I didn’t own a car. I didn’t have a key chain because I didn’t have anything to lock. There’s almost a luxurious freedom about that.”
“Some people would think of it as a hardship, but … I’d walk out under the dark and the stars and sleep with the fresh air blowing over me.”
Vernon Swaback, Swaback Partners
In his own mind he hadn’t done enough to deserve a reputation as a proficient architect. “When I left Taliesin, I had no money and was working as a one man shop,” Swaback says. “I had to ask, ‘What’s in me? What do I have when all the trappings of genius are gone?’” What Swaback had was that same unknown quality that caught Wright’s eye and has never been extinguished. He established Vernon Swaback Associates in 1978, which became Swaback Partners in 1999. The firm has since been a prominent source of forward-thinking and holistic design philosophies.
Swaback Partners recently collaborated with the Navajo Housing Authority, on a project “unprecedented in its magnitude,” Swaback says. Working with representatives of the Navajo Nation, which spans 27,000 square miles or roughly the size of West Virginia, the project involves the planning of five Navajo agencies, which are equivalent to American states; 24 regions, equivalent to counties; and 110 chapters, equivalent to cities and towns. To facilitate involvement, Swaback and his team have held individual meetings in more than 30 places all over the Navajo Nation.
“We go to each individual location and cover the walls of the meeting rooms with a profusion of drawings and plans, not to further our own ideas or direction, but rather to stimulate and inspire responsive dialogue,” Swaback says. “[In this way,] they’ve been able identify basic considerations for how to plan, design, and live, including building systems and materials, orientation and shading, water harvesting, and that which the built environment can do to have a positive influence in the direction of cooperative behavior.”
Another notable and highly successful project is the family-centric Martis Camp in Truckee, California. Designed by Swaback’s long-term partner, John Sather, Martis Camp is a luxury community—luxury in a sense that Swaback and Wright understand different than most people. “Wright would say, ‘I learned early in life that I could get along without the necessities if only I could have the luxuries,’” Swaback says. “This would always get a good laugh. Wright’s idea of luxury wasn’t anything that money alone could buy. It was to live with beauty and culture and to be able to associate with intelligent people and the bounty of nature.” Martis Camp has many amenities, but of the 2,127 acres, well more than half of its total land area will remain true to its natural environment with the native vegetation intact.
Swaback’s life was forever changed when he gave that unexpected response to one of history’s greatest architects. “I think I’m always formulating responses; I’m thinking all the time about what this notion of design and architecture has the power to achieve,” Swaback says.
And the questions still exist. For Swaback, his fascination with Wright’s influence hasn’t been satiated. “What was it about him and his work that is forever an inspiration?” he says. “Considering the high praise and publicity accorded the many star architects who continue to build with increasing grandeur all over the world, how is it that this lone architect who was born just two years after the Civil War and lived most of his life in remote, hard-to-reach places remains the singular iconic name? It implies that his life and work represents something that we might want to be more interested in exploring.”
Just as Swaback still wonders about Wright, Wright once wondered about Swaback. Where does he get it? The truth is that we don’t know where that elusive greatness comes from, in either architect, and if we did, perhaps it would cease to be so exceptional.