Written and photographed by Scott M B Gustafson
Last month I decided to escape Los Angeles for the weekend and head out to Phoenix. I had not specific agenda and no one to see; the only goal was to disconnect, relax and get inspired. The first hundred miles or so driving east you are firmly aware that you are still in the grip of the metropolitan Los Angeles conurbation, but as soon as you see your first power generating windmill on the outskirts of Palm Springs you know you’ve hit the edge of the desert and miles upon miles of undeveloped beauty awaits.
I arrived in the city around sunset, and like the many times I came up to Phoenix from Tucson, my first stop was the Central Library. It has always been one of my favorite buildings for the sole fact that the client only wanted “a warehouse for books” and Will Bruder delivered a soaring monument to the beauty of knowledge and the civic importance of its accessibility. Like the plants of the desert, this building has a bold form that is finely tuned to the climate. Nearly opaque walls of corrugated copper protect the eastern and western faces, the southern facade is all glass but protected by horizontal sun louvers. The north facade, also glazed, is protected by an ingenious array of fabric sails. In the summertime the sun rises and sets north of due east and west and these sails reduce the heat gain and glare into the building. I could go on and on about all the amazing details this building contains. It’s never showy or flamboyant or over detailed for the sake of being witty or clever. It’s a thoroughly well considered piece of public architecture that every citizen deserves and yet rarely experiences. Many of the architects employed in Will’s studio during the design phase of this building have gone on to run their own successful practices. If their sensitive talents could be rallied to update the Post Office, the DMV and all the other dour public institutions we deal with regularly civic life would be much more enjoyable. In this building type alone the stunning collection of libraries across Arizona built in the last twenty years is proof that great things can happen on limited budgets of public institutions.
Saturday was a big day. I set off early from the Saguaro Hotel in Scottsdale and headed northwest to the Deer Valley Rock Art Center. A small interpretive center and outdoor walking trail, this site is home to one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the western United States. These markings are the prehistoric version of street art (streets having not yet been invented) and the ancient peoples of the region marked the land with drawings to convey the values of their lifestyle that were important to them. It is humbling to know that people similar to us walked the same land thousands of years ago; it is frightening to look up from these amazing rocks and see an endless sea of air conditioned stucco boxes. Contemporary society knows how to live on the land but has forgotten how to live with the land. Our elders still have so much to teach.
I headed back to central Phoenix to visit the art museum. First off I stopped in a quiet neighborhood to see the Mariposa House by Debartolo Architects. A restrained composition of linear masonry, channel glass and shadows, it employs the lessons of the desert in a contemporary way with such grace and ease. The south facade has limited openings and a minimal ramada to shade parked automobiles. The building is a residence for Jesuit priests associated with the nearby college preparatory academy. The building is split into three parallel wings with a native gardens in between. It is the perfect place to contemplate the perfection of the natural order of things.
When I lived in Tucson from 1999 until 2004 I would drive to Phoenix on a regular basis. The first addition to the Phoenix Art Museum by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects was already completed. However there second addition was completed after I left the state and I wanted to see what they had done. Although their practice is based in New York City, Williams and Tsien have the talent to create strongly rooted works wherever they work. Lately I have been fascinated with the concept of repose – a pile of rocks, or sand, or nails or chocolate chips will stack up in a pile that is perfectly suited to the nature of that material. The buildings of Tod and Billie are richly woven compositions of glass, steel, stone, space and movement. And yet they feel to me to be quiet at rest, settled and sheltering. It is a great experience to be in a place that makes you feel such at ease while still giving the eye, the hand and the foot so much to see and touch. The senses are engaged without every being overwhelmed.
“There is a notion these days that architecture is increasingly becoming lighter. But I don’t believe it one bit. It’s just an illusion of lightness. Buildings are heavy. I haven’t met a building I could lift.”
– Tod Williams
On Instagram I noted that “The real architects of Phoenix take the teasing of the sun to a gourmet level.” The architect Steven Holl once said that space and light are the only free materials. In a demanding climate like the Sonoran Desert protection from the sun and the conversation of resources is a necessity of survival. Though our society has advanced to the point that for most people daily living in the desert is not a matter of life or death, there is no reason for the architecture of the our cities to flaunt this security and devolve into ostentatious decadence. There is beauty in the natural landscape and there is no logical reason as human beings, part of the natural order, that the places we construct for ourselves should be insensitive and out of tune. I have never seen an ugly bird’s nest or beaver lodge, but plenty of ugly bird houses and ski lodges. This lesson is true in every place, but the extremes of the desert bring it into sharper focus and it becomes more visible. Though we live in exciting times with the great advances technology brings for near instantaneous communication across the globe, we may lose our ability to be connected right where we are. To successfully navigate the world, our inner compass must rotate upon a solid pivot. Real architecture is a means to achieve this.
“Life exacts a price for less than full participation. We lose touch with the human values and qualities that spring naturally from a full engagement with work and life: integrity, honesty, loyalty, responsibility, and cooperation. Without the guidance these qualities bring to our lives, we begin to drift, prey to an uneasy sense of dissatisfaction. Once we have lost the knowledge of how to ground ourselves in meaningful work, we do not know the where to turn to find value in life.”
– Tarthang Tulku
“The Opposite of Play is not Work, it’s Depression”
– Stuart Brown