Phoenix is probably not on most people's lists of great cities for architecture, and I'm certainly not out to convince you otherwise. In fact, the idea for this post came from watching James Howard Kunstler's TED talk and perusing his Eyesore of the Month page. My first thought was to take some pictures of eyesores to send in for the page. My second thought was the realization that metro-Phoenix was one gigantic eyesore and it wouldn't be practical or constructive to actually try to catalog its entirety or even find some quintessential blight (although I learned recently that my sister's best friend makes a point of showing vistors to the valley our palm tree cell towers, which I think would make a lovely addition to Kunstler's dubious collection). The only thing I was sure of was that Mr. Kunstler had never been to metro-Phoenix: there is such a glut of eyesore to been seen here, both in quantity and in sheer horrific ugliness, that I can't imagine he'd have visited and not added some Phoenix photos to the eyesore page.
While pondering the sad state of beauty, community, and character in our sprawling parking lot, I realized that there are pockets of success. Phoenix does have a sense of place; a unique style that unmistakably feels like Phoenix, and nowhere else. It's fragile and sporadically applied, but it's clear to me that if we're thoughtful about development going forward, we can make Phoenix more beautiful, hospitable, and livable.
Good design, by definition, is not superficially beautiful, but also fulfills some set of requirements that make it useful as well. I could blather on for years about what exactly it is that makes something beautiful and I might still not convince you, but in a nutshell, I generally subscribe to the idea that form and function should not be an either/or proposition. That for something to have lasting beauty, it needs usefulness, and that an object is not really fulfilling its function if it isn't somehow beautiful. For a city to have a sense of place, the built environment must address the climate, history, and the spirit or culture of the people who live there: an aesthetic arises from this naturally. In Phoenix, we must build for a hot, dry climate with sensitivity to our historic architecture (much of which dates to the 1920s and 30s) and native cultures. And it seems that where Phoenix has succeeded in cultivating a distinct aesthetic, this is already happening.
To grasp the essence of a place visually, it's important that the built environment reveal history. Analogously, the history of the English language is revealed in the spelling of various words. We can see the relationship between words borrowed from the same language at the same time (if we know what we're looking for), and that's lost if we all decided tomorrow to spell everything phonetically. In Phoenix we have a penchant for the architectural equivalent of phonetic spelling: we just tear down and start over every ten or twenty years, so as a result the vast majority of our city was built from roughly 1970 onward (though to be fair, I don't think this is unique to Phoenix). This is a combination of rapid growth, cheap building, and a heavy dose of California envy. (I think Phoenix often feels like LA's ugly younger sister. And I defy you to find an Arizonan who as a kid didn't ponder California falling into the ocean and giving us our very own beach.) But where we haven't bull-dozed it, we've got some iconic buildings like the Westward Ho or the Biltmore Resort, a lot of modest but lovely skyscrapers from the twenties and thirties, and a sprinkling of mission revival, all mixed with some rather grim, monumental behemoths from the seventies and eighties. But a lot of this works together for me because there's often a visible intention to bring them together through geometric pattern that also subtly evokes native American visual culture. Through this seemingly disparate mix we get a chance to see the history of Phoenix, like strata of earth showing what came before—what we're a part of.
Building with the harsh climate in mind is something that I think has slipped away in Phoenix over the years. Again, keeping up with the Californian Joneses leads us to build bigger, with lots of windows to let in the light (heat!) and let us commune with nature while sitting in air-conditioned comfort on our sofa. Ironically, the wisdom of building with a sensitivity toward our historical urban landscape is reinforced when you consider the desert climate: anything built before the advent of air conditioning is by necessity built to cool the inside as effectively as possible, and as it becomes hip to think about green building, well, perhaps an adobe bungalow surrounded by a wide covered porch is not such a bad thing after all. A lot of the buildings that look aesthetically appropriate are excellent at deflecting heat, and that's no accident. The climate is an essential practical consideration that becomes part of a place's aesthetic.
I like to think of Phoenix's aesthetic as the Bladerunner look: the strong 80's influence, geometric pattern, pollution, and echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright make it feel that way for me. That may sound sinister and dystopian, but I think it's more of a grim optimism for the future—one we're going to build ourselves, through brute force and ambition. There is a deliberateness, a determination to subdue nature and live here in defiance of it that defines the our character as citizens of this city, and that's reflected in our architecture and built environment.