Arts & Culture Featured Fara Illich October 21, 2009

skylineDowntown Phoenix has been under a major renaissance and has at long last begun to live up to its name of mythical origin. The city is rising from the ashes and becoming something beautiful and powerful. I like the symbolism and am captivated with my romanticized version of what the City of Phoenix can become. We face overwhelming obstacles for many reasons (zoning, bureaucracy, negative perceptions, etc.) any change for the better will take time and patience.
The city needs to understand what it is, what it is not, and accept those facts. The city needs to embrace its identity, and most importantly, the city needs the freedom and creativity of many different people and ideas. The old model of growth and development has failed. The costs of our sprawl are too great, and many of these costs are not easy to see, nevertheless, they exist. I’m speaking in terms of the cost of tearing up more of the desert and paving over it with blacktop to create parking lots and roads, the costs of fuel, the costs of time spent commuting, the costs of traffic and the damage to air quality and physical health, the cost of not having walkable neighborhoods, the loss of community and a sense of our history.
Despite these things, I love Arizona and I know I’ll live and die here. I’m o.k. with that because it is an exciting time to be a Phoenician. Arizona is charming and has a lot to offer. We are known for warm and sunny weather, the natural and awe inspiring beauty of the Sonoran Desert, Sedona, the Grand Canyon, we have prestigious universities, a rich influence of Native American and Hispanic cultures, and the best Mexican food on the planet. But Phoenix certainly isn’t known for inspiring architecture.
Honestly, the person who designed the Wells Fargo building must really hate humanity. It’s clunky and boxy and as inspiring to look at as that stuff my beagle threw up the other day. I can feel the seething disgust of the architect towards architecture and the city, as if he drew that building maliciously and created it to sneer at the world.
Architecture is art, although it serves multiple purposes as art and as a structure for shelter. Like any art, it expresses the artist’s value judgments and sense of life. Art should say something. Architecture, as art, can and should be beautiful. Phoenix deserves a beautiful skyscraper. I was excited about the CityScape project being built at Washington and Central because it had the potential to bring us a step close to good architecture. The original renderings and plans were, for the most part, pretty great. Then the project got scaled back, then the buildings were redesigned, then the height of the towers were cut, then the project was divided up into phases. (And as history has taught us, Phase II of any project in Downtown Phoenix has never been completed.) I’m happy that something is being built on that spot in downtown and I’m thrilled that the hideous Patriots Square Park (and I use the term “park” loosely) is gone, never to be an eye sore again. But the new tower is just average, it’s not inspiring, it’s not innovative (ok, the blue glass is different) but it looks like all the other towers downtown: safe. Aesthetically it’s just, well, boring.
If I was an architect (and I’m not) or if I had a lot of money to finance a new tower (and I don’t) I’d design and build, what I would call, the Saguaro Tower, which would really be three towers in one. It would be built on a dusty lot downtown because there are certainly a lot of them and no reason to raze another piece of history. My tower would be built up to the sidewalk to encourage pedestrians; no plazas that push the streetscape away will be allowed. Extreme care would be taken to eliminate any dead zone on the street. The middle part of the tower would cut upwards toward the sky, then about halfway up, the building would extend out and up, like the arm of a cactus. The arm would be solely for condos, the main tower for offices. On the other side of the main tower, another arm would rise up and extend to the max height allowance. This would be the hotel. An observation deck would be built on top, along with a restaurant. On top of the other “arm” would be a pool. Back down on the pedestrian friendly street level, I would surround the building with old bungalow houses; the little gems still scattered around town. I’d move them from their locations and use them at the base of the tower as a coffee shop, art studio, writers studio, bookstore, etc. Anything that encourages people to walk and be outside and interactive.
I know I’m a dreamer, but like a wise man once said, “I’m not the only one.” I wonder if anyone ever thought a rural farming community in the middle of the desert would grow to become the 5th largest city in the United States. I imagine some people said that could never happen. But it did. And even if my Saguaro Tower remains forever a vision in my head, I can hope that something, some beautiful skyscraper will someday grace the Phoenix skyline and be a point of pride, something unique that expresses the beauty of the desert, and a tower that declares, “We are proud of our city and our heritage. This is Phoenix!”
Why not?