It all began with two men: a master architect and a university president leading a small school toward becoming a major university. Gammage Auditorium resulted from the collaboration--becoming a symbol for ASU and Tempe, and emerging as representation of Wright’s enduring late-career ideas and influence. Frank Lloyd Wright is arguably the greatest (or at least most influential) American architect. His influence is visible everywhere in the United States. Not just evident in his artistic master creations such as Taliesin or Falling Water, Wright’s influence extends to the ranch-style homes so common across American suburbs, and the landscapes of the midwestern and western United States, especially in Phoenix and the southwest.
Wright’s work was endlessly inventive; including the plan he developed or the Arizona State Capitol--the Oasis--in the 1950s, which in part influenced the development of Gammage Auditorium. As Arizona considered what to do with its state capitol building, it commissioned a number of designs including several notable modernist designs that would have resulted in a high-rise office tower at the heart of the capitol grounds. Asked what he thought about the proposals in 1957, Wright reportedly stated, “Why Comment? (The building proposal) is its own comment on Arizona.” As he drew his response in a plan, he reportedly said that "To build an already dated New York monstrosity to stand up to present Arizona to posterity seems to me a crime.” The debate and Wright’s proposed capitol complex for Papago Park--which was sent to local newspapers--caught the eye of Grady Gammage, who approached him with the idea of designing a signature auditorium space.
Grady Gammage, who had been President at ASU since 1933, had been shepherding the University from a small teacher’s college into a major university. Joseph Siry in his article writes that his work had occurred methodically over two decades, with a singular goal of building a school that was:
“...worthy counterpart to his own alma mater, the older University of Arizona in Tuscon. Underlying his effort was a local consensus that Phoenix had to develop an institution that provided engineering and other graduate education in order to encourage major manufacturers to relocate in what then became promoted as the Valley of the Sun”.
When his term started, ASU was still called The Arizona State Teachers College at Tempe. As he expanded the university’s curriculum, he also expanded its profile and identity. In 1958, after a hotly contested state-wide election, for example, voters approved the proposal that Gammage put forth to change the name to Arizona State University. As part of his broader plan for the University’s physical plant, Gammage embarked on a post-war building campaign that drew assistance from state and federal sources and that contributed to the reshaping of both the campus and of Tempe itself. Included in his plan was an auditorium that was meant to draw people from all over the central Arizona region and that would be located along Apache Boulevard--then the central route into and out of the Phoenix area where the federal highway system converged and brought traffic to/from the East through Mesa and into Tempe, before curving and crossing the Salt River at the Mill Avenue Bridge. For Gammage, a signature building so prominently sited would serve as a capstone on decades of expansion. It was the spring of 1957 after Gammage had read an article about Wrights Arizona Capitol building in the Phoenix Gazette that Grady reached out to Wright to ask about designing the auditorium
Wright seized the opportunity to bring his failed plan for a revolutionary Baghdad Opera House to fruition--from Baghdad and the Arabian Desert to Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. Part of a broader effort by mid-century architects to reimagine the post-war national capitols, the Baghdad Project also reflected Wright’s interest in the geometric form of circle and arc, as well as an intense desire to build projects that reflects, at least to some degree, their local environments. The original drawings for the Baghdad Opera House did just that, reflecting its proposed location on an island located in the Tigris River that bisected the city. Eventually, Wright’s proposals had been rejected, but he returned to those plans as he thought about an auditorium for another desert capital. Wright to use a significant portion of the designs for the Opera house on the Auditorium, and even just a cursory examination of the planned facade of the Opera house with the sweeping arches and upper level balcony, alongside the Gammage Auditorium show the substantial similarities. Further evidence of the connection between the Baghdad Opera House and Gammage Memorial Auditorium comes from Kay Gammage who “remembered that when her husband drove out to Taliesin West to see Wright about building an auditorium at ASU, Wright ‘shuffled around and got out some things he had for other place and [the Baghdad Opera House] was one of them.” Gradually, Baghdad Opera House would evolve into the plans for Gammage Auditorium.
After the Auditorium was built it would become a defining symbol for the university. The building is one of the most iconic on campus and is instantly recognizable just by looking at it, and marked the pinpoint when a relatively small teachers college became a fully-fledged university. Most promotional brochures given or sent to prospective students for decades included some image of the auditorium. Gammage also centrally figured into campus life. Wright once said to Gammage, “I’ll build you a building that will be a gateway to your University. It will be a gateway to your intellectual level. It will introduce what you stand for….It will make your university.” During a tour of the prospective spot for the Auditorium Wright said, “...I believe this is the site. The structure should be circular in design-yes, and with outstretched arms, saying ‘Welcome to Arizona.’ Wright imagined the auditorium as a gateway to Arizona State’s campus, as he would plan the Baghdad Opera House as a stately preface to the new Baghdad University.” At a dinner party that took place during Wright’s visit to the prospective location of the auditorium, it is accounted that,
“After dinner, Mr Wright banged on the table and said: “I feel the need to say something. I believe it’s time that ASU grow up and be like a university. You are missing the one thing that would tie a university together. That is an auditorium or concert hall...I will build the building for you. I already have the plans drawn and they won’t cost you a cent.”
The Auditorium would also become a symbol of the community of Tempe and the central region of Arizona. Eventually, for example, the City of Tempe would include an image of the Auditorium on its seal . The Auditorium also became “the main facility for the performing arts in the Phoenix area, which then held half the state’s population and three-fourths of its building as the cultural center for the entire Southwest.” Slowly but surely the building became a regional symbol and became everything that Frank Lloyd Wright hoped the rejected Arizona State Capitol building never was. Even today, it remains an important symbol of the University; even if its import has diminished by continued campus expansion, a re-centering of the campus back toward its older center around Old Main, and the shifting transportation infrastructure away from the old federal highway system that traversed Apache Boulevard toward the Interstate Highway System.