The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his clients to plant vines. — Frank Lloyd Wright
The most depressing part of Star Trek Into Darkness is not the many liberties that the filmmaker takes with some of the foundational conceits and tropes of the franchise. Only trekkers will notice (for example, a starship is not built to enter a planet's atmosphere, much less hide in the ocean, etc. etc.). No, what really bummed me out was the architecture. I mean, this is the 23rd century and we're stuck with taller versions of the insipid buildings of today? At least Blade Runner has some variety and gigantic Japanese-style electronic billboards in its vision of the future. We've got interstellar travel, transporters, phasers — and civilization is stuck with the progeny of John Portman, David Childs and Cesar Pelli. And that's if we're lucky. No art deco revival? No reinterpretations of the Chicago school? Gah! If this is the future, no wonder they want to leave the planet.
That's just movie fantasy. In the real world, there's no shortage of lists of the world's ugliest buildings (see here and here), along with Jim Kunstler's cringeworthy-but-must-see Eyesore of the Month. And to be sure, I'm treading into matters of taste, where many valid viewpoints must be considered. Still, architecture matters a great deal. It is the most important physical testimony about a civilization and its trajectory. It constitutes the built environment that at its best informs, inspires or defines so much of our lives. At its worst, it is, as Kunstler says, a landscape not worth caring about. And unfortunately a stupendous amount of our total buildings have been put up in recent decades, with most exercises in copycat banality or starchitect sculptures with little to offer humans or the surrounding streetscape.
My friend Will Bruder, who designed Phoenix's central library, good-naturedly challenges me by saying "not everything old is good." And he's right. But not everything new is good, either, and there's so much more of it. Phoenix actually offers some wonderful architecture — it's just spread out amid so much mass-produced junk. Even the Phoenix ranch house is charming. But a hundred thousand of them are building blocks of slums.
In old Phoenix, I love, among others, Union Station, the 1929 City Hall-Maricopa County Courthouse where my fictional detective until recently had his office, the Luhrs Tower, St. Mary's Basilica, Trinity Cathedral, the Orpheum and the bungalows and period revival houses (and Kenilworth School) in the Midtown historic districts. These are a visual feast of different styles, full of pleasure, comfort, strangeness, imagination and inspiration. Elsewhere, the city offers many examples of mid-century and later modernism worth cherishing (even though it's not really my thing and a little of it goes a long way). The Viad Tower is one piece of sculpture that actually works, a stunning show on an otherwise dull highrise corridor. Bruder's library is another. Any surviving Valley National Bank branch from the 1960s is a treat, and before it was surrounded by other towers the bank's headquarters Valley Center (Chase Tower until the next merger) was built to resemble prisms, with edges that catch the sunrise and sunset. All over town, one can find wonderful mid-century modern houses. Frank Lloyd Wright's Baghdad Opera House graces ASU in Tempe and his disciple Albert Chase McArthur designed the Arizona Biltmore. (Alas, Taliesin West has been spoiled by the encroachment of north Scottsdale tract houses).
Imagine if most of Phoenix's architectural gems were all gathered together in the central core. It would be a world-class "wow" even if the city had been too small and poor to benefit from much of the art deco movement.
On the other hand, we could make a long list of Phoenix's ugliest. Topping my tear-down sheet is the 1974 Executive Tower that brutalizes the charming territorial capitol building. Feel free to add your own.
Downtown Phoenix has come a long way from the dog days of 1980, but it desperately needs better architecture. A few newer achievements are the garden at Arizona Center, the Phoenix Convention Center and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU. Otherwise, Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Bruder, who has long lamented the lack of signature architecture downtown, actually designed an eye-popping hotel that would have pivoted over and above the Sun Mercantile, but Suns owner Sarver showed no interest. Quality costs money. CityScape's initial renderings promised at least some shapes that were different from the dreary boxes found where we're fortunate enough to have a building and not an empty lot. The reality has been a disappointment, to put it mildly. The Sprawl Needle, if it's built, will be an eyesore (having already gained that dubious honor from Kunstler). Please, no more copper...
One answer will be no surprise to regular readers: Downtown needs major headquarters and stewards with means. But it also needs ones with some ambition, vision and taste. Seattle is in the middle of an astounding downtown building boom, propelled by Amazon.com's headquarters. But most of the towers are very ordinary and Amazon's three planned 40-story skyscrapers don't look impressive in renderings. Fortunately, Seattle has some wonderful buildings from the first decades of the 20th century and one mid-century marvel in the Space Needle.
The photo above shows the world headquarters of Procter & Gamble in downtown Cincinnati, a city with some of the finest architecture in America. Designed by Jerri Smith of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, it shows two very important facts. First, everything new doesn't have to be a glass box or crack-your-brain piece of sculpture. Second, P&G, the world's largest consumer products company, could have built an 80-story tower. Instead, when it needed a new headquarters, it also gave a gift to the city with this properly scaled set of buildings and the surrounding gardens carefully knitted into downtown (and, yes, locals do call them the Dolly Parton Towers). I also ran across the work of David M. Schwarz, which is also attractive and in context. Downtown Phoenix could benefit from such work.
You will find far better meditations on architecture elsewhere, probably even from Soleri and Emil if they choose to comment. I know what I like, and do believe the larger decadence of American society is shown in our built environment. Not fun decadence. Merely a dead end. And lots of it.