Much of Tempe ’s progressive attitude—and the abundance of cheap restaurants, bars, and shops—can be credited to the presence of Arizona State University’s main campus (University Dr. and Mill Ave., 480/965-9011, www.asu.edu ). ASU was founded as the Tempe Normal School in 1885 while Arizona was still a territory. Since then, it has mushroomed into the largest public research university in the country, with 67,000 students on four campuses in the Valley.
Those interested in design and architecture should head south on Mill Avenue to see two significant buildings. The Nelson Fine Arts Center is a Modernist concrete complex that is perfectly suited to its desert home, drawing inspiration from Native American architecture and creating brilliant subterranean spaces that highlight the desert’s stark contrasts of light and shadow.
Inside, the ASU Art Museum (51 E. 10th St., 480/965-2787, http://asuartmuseum.asu.edu , 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sat., free), has a modest collection that features contemporary, Latin American, and ceramic pieces.
Just south, you’ll find Gammage Auditorium (1200 S. Forest Ave., 480/965-5062, www.asugammage.com , open for performances), the last public commission of Frank Lloyd Wright. Based on an old design for an opera house in Baghdad, Iraq, Wright modified the concept for its new home on the edge of ASU’s campus. “I believe this is the site,” he said. “The structure should be circular in design, and yes, with outstretched arms, saying ‘Welcome to ASU.’”
Those arms became flying buttresses that serve as pedestrian ramps and echo the building’s interlocking-circle motif. Both Wright and ASU president Grady Gammage, who is credited with landing the commission, died before its completion in 1964.