Story and photos 2006 Walt Lockley. Additional photography 2006-2016 Modern Phoenix LLC


Frank Henry's "Dendriform Column" Branch at 44th and Camelback

This building.... oh my God.

Oh my God it's wonderful. As a technical feat of architecture, as time travel, as spatial entertainment, as a reminder of lost-but-live possibilities, as a live example of the history of suburban banks as roadside attractions, this bank is amazing. It's a dinosaur, a friendly talking dinosaur. If you have an extra $500 concealed in your shower curtain rod and live within let's say 75 miles of 44th Street and Camelback, let me suggest that you open a Chase account at this branch next weekend or now if you can.

The archivist at Taliesin West was kind enough to let me know that "the building located at 4401 E. Camelback was originally a Valley National Bank (Bank One's predecessor) and was designed by the architectural firm of Weaver and Drover. Completed in 1968, the project had no association with Frank Lloyd Wright's successor firm, Taliesin Architects. I hope this info helps."

It does, thank you archivist.

Someting tells me they get that question a lot.

The firm of Weaver & Drover lasted from 1949 to 1968 and its successor firm is still very much in business. It was also responsible for the 1966 Hayden Library at ASU with the concrete sunscreens that were fashionable, and other VNB branches. Their successor firm had something to do with Terminals 2, 3 and 4 at Sky Harbor.

The individual designer, in fact, was Frank Henry, who worked for Weaver and Drover for something like 30 years, and who now (May 2006) teaches at Taliesin West. This is an award-winning and conspicuous building.

First, consider these concrete mushrooms, or as Mr. Henry describes them, the dendriform ("tree-shaped") columns. There are roughly a dozen dendiform columns on the grounds, mysteriously shaped and randomly placed in a parklike landscape, with a couple of fountains and scattered benches, that's such a generous and loose use of land it seems Texan in rhythm.

(Based on these concrete mushrooms I initially guessed that Weaver & Drover had something to do with the Camelview Cinema in Scottsdale, which also has dendiform columns. That guess is totally wrong. The Camelviews', although equally mysterious and retro, are nothing alike, and an inadequate imitation according to Mr. Henry. Agreed. See below.)

The interior has to be experienced in three dimensions and I can only take a stab at this. Go get that money out of your shower curtain rod and see for yourself.

The entire floorplan is based on circles and segments of circles, except for one S-shaped wall. The vault occupies its own strong circle and the shape suggests completed self-sufficiency. The only flat surfaces I remember are the floor below, the ceiling above, and the flat panes of black glass. So all the walls are curved but the floorplan unfolds in a pleasantly, teasingly disorienting way, and the visual angles change with every step.

The enclosed shape in the photo above is a partial crescent, the space between two circle-segments, which forms a kind of glass prow, containing an open office floor with 8 or 10 desks. What you cannot tell from the outside is that this prow frames a wonderful view of Camelback Mountain to the northwest and this view firmly ties the building to the site.

The five dendrifom columns inside are spaced around in an organic semi-random way, a grove of columns, and I guess they're holding up the floating ceiling, because it's free-span space underneath and there are clerestory windows all around the envelope. Damned if I can figure it out though. The top of each column goes higher than the roof, your eye is drawn up there by the column shape and your naturalborn heliotropism, and each column top covers a circle of clerestory skylights mounted in the gap. It's a good trick and a great effect. The undersides of the concrete column-caps are incised with shapes, like flower petals, and the inside rim of the ceiling looks like gears. (One photo would explain this, but they wouldn't let me.)

The brick work on the floor radiates out in circles from the column bases.

The interior walls are the same, er, intermittant rock as the exterior. There's a story floating around that this was a construction mistake that Mrs. Bimson accidentally saw on a site visit and liked and insisted be kept, a story that has the unmistakable ring of being made up.

Maybe the coolest thing about the interior is the constellation of silver aluminum canister fixtures randomly placed on the ceiling. It's sort of whimsical. According to the kind Assistant Branch Manager pulling Saturday morning hours at the teller window who wouldn't let me take photographs -- not quite yet, anyway -- those lights burn out a lot, and somebody has to spend a half-day on a ladder exchanging them. All his difficult labor is definitely worth my momentary amusement.

So that gives you an idea. There's a lot more, and a good deal of loving attention to the composition, the proportions, about how things fit together -- the fountain by the entryway, for instance. It's beautiful.

What with the floorplan based on circles and curves, with the bands of clerestory windows, with this particular kind of stonework inside and outside, with the dendriform columns themselves, which you could see as a direct quote from the 1939 Johnson Wax Headquarters, with the placement of those columns inside and outside to blur that distinction, and with the entire building's inventive & frisky quality, yes, it probably owes something to Frank Lloyd Wright.

Is it a modernist building? Oh, yeah, but it's not the Modernist style. It doesn't fit with the universal recipe of the clean-lined steel and glass box, it's not about structural purity, it doesn't seem to belong to any year or style at all, and it defies categorization -- which is great, because architectural categories tend to be wrongheaded and intrinsically misleading anyway. It's in line with the work of Lautner, and Bertrand Goldberg, and Hugo Häring, all of them devoted to the idea of starting from scratch, every time.

To me this building is a playful reminder that Modernism is the process rather than the outcome, that if you find yourself in love with a certain answer, a certain shape, you've overlooked the point and the experiment is over. As the Zen master Dwight David Eisenhower once said in another context, the plan is nothing, the planning is everything.


Story and photos 2006 Walt Lockley. Additional photography 2006-2016 Modern Phoenix LLC

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