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June 08, 2015


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It is not surprising that the one exception to the abysmal architecture was shepherded through by Walter Bimson (Valley National Bank). His art collection pretty much was the Phoenix Art Museum at first, and it is still my favorite part of what is now a much bigger cultural touchstone. I have a coffee table book of his collection that is signed by him and presented to an employee in 1974 as a work anniversary token of appreciation. I think it demonstrates Bimson's dedication to the arts back when we needed it most. Would that there were more people like him then and now.

In "A Safeway in Arizona," I described the executive office tower -- which is effectively the state capitol -- as the ugliest in America and with the charm of a medical-dental plaza.

Yes, this is a #plug. Apologies.

Hooray! Jon, this is one column with which I wholeheartedly agree! The original library/LIttle Theatre complex on the NE corner of McDowell and Central looked nice in their original salmon and white. You've undoubtedly commented on this already, but it does say something that our art museum itself is so ugly! Especially since it represents an awful redo of something that was previously okay. Where did they come up with that Creature-from-the-depths slimy green, anyway?

Haha, "2. The Arizona Executive Office Tower."

Easter Island.

I’ll plug Tom Wolfe’s book “From Bauhaus to Our House” for a brief history of the god-awful “international style” architecture. Like a lot of bad ideas, it came out of Europe. As RC said, this is not just a Phoenix thing; it’s infected just about the whole planet. There’s a chapter titled “The Apostates” dealing with non-international style architects of the era. These included F. L. Wright, Eero Saarinen and Atlanta’s John Portman.

I will say things have improved since around 2000 or so; not nearly as good as the pre-war American style building, but better than the standard glass or concrete box. Even the butcher Richard Meier deigned to use something besides a flat roof for a portion The Sandy; and columns that are almost decorative! Must have given him an ulcer to do that. Still a lot of monumentally bad buildings being built by “world class” architects e.g. the new Whitney in NYC.
There are rays of hope:


Re “But the egos of the architecture world, combined with the desire to build cheap...” The tragic this is, many of the buildings were not cheap; they just look cheap.

Re “There are no new ideas, one definition of decadence.” There’s no assurance that new ideas will be any better than the old ones. The International Style was a new idea once. Then there is a new-new idea, the “pile-of-junk” style of Frank Geary (Spelling?) e.g. the Disney Center in L.A.

Another benefit of the “low-rise” city: eye-sores can only louse up their own immediate vicinity.

Every time I walked by the Executive Tower/House & Senate Buildings, I used to wonder if they got the plans in a cultural swap with the USSR.


I'm sorry, but Arizona don't want no culture. Never has, never will.
Dance hall girls is it. Anything above that is throwing good money away.

When I worked there, my young daughter used to call the Arizona Executive Office Tower "The Tower of Terror." Although her reference was the Disneyland attraction of the same name, I thought her characterization of the building was perfect on so many levels.

Actually, police headquarters is the fortress that the police want. They are always ready to be attacked by the public. They can defend themselves through the slit windows and escape through the helipad on top. The House and Senate building is the worst in my view. Just ugly public space which is very unfriendly to the public they serve.

Re: “Phoenix Police Headquarters. Check out the seamless intertwining of Brutalist architecture, 1960s fortress mentality…” I’ve noticed a trend in governmental architecture in recent times. They are, in fact, fortresses. Notice the curb-side concrete structures and planters in front of the Executive Office Building. These are to deter car bombers. At least it’s obvious where the front door is – something you can’t say about a lot of governmental structures.

Note the Sandy building. It apparently sits down in a hole. This is to serve as a dry moat around the building. Assuming this is “the front” of the building, it’s not obvious as to where the door is – and you can be sure there’s only one – with a security check-point including scanners, armed guards, etc. The whole point is to say “don’t come here”.

My father used to say "These are the conditions, how do I make them work to my advantage?". I have developed a nice little collection pulling from estate sales, library sales (where I got the Bimson book), etc. because, as you say, this is Arizona and for years you couldn't give away stuff that commanded top dollar in LA. I have a sweet 3k ft. custom midcentury modern ranch style house (original tile!) on an acre of Eden that I could not have afforded in my wildest dreams anywhere in CA, because for some inexplicable reason "Tuscan" shopping mall style houses are big here now. As Diane said, many of our public buildings do look like the plans were mail ordered from a bleak cold war iron curtain architecture mill, but there is a certain advantage to having a freak's perspective among philistines. Bimson and Goldwater and any number of other people threw a great deal of good money at culture here and I am grateful they did. John Waddell got a lot of popular support here from regular people despite being a transcendent creator of some of the most beautiful statuary I have ever seen. The Dance was stunning when it graced PHX City Plaza and was back lit by a fountain. I just wish there were more people like them then and now. Perhaps, like a lot of old people, I look back to the halcyon days of my youth with the blindness of nostalgia, but I think that thirty years ago Phoenicians whose last names weren't Kierland or Herberger supported an artistic sensibility that made it easier for people like the Herbergers and the Kierlands to build beautiful public space. Kierland Commons looks the way it does because that is what the people who are willing to drop a couple of hundred bucks in 15 minutes at a Teava or a couple of thousand bucks in 15 minutes at Crate & Barrel now want it to look like. Business caters to the preferences of the market, particularly the fast turn over, high mark up, market. In the end, some people wanted "culture" then and some want it now. It just seems to me that there used to be more popular support for it then than there is now. I am appalled by much of the built environment here, but I am very grateful, indeed, to be able to easily make my midcentury modern mortgage on a teacher's salary. Sadly, those two things go together.

For "great" and magnificently obscene architecture I suggest you look at religious structures built on the backs of suffering peasants (thst live in one story adobe hovels) for con men of the cloth to live in splendor and imbibe in good food, wine and stalking sex of the innocent in the dark dungeons of god.

WKGINBHAM American Roman senator's have for 60 years have engaged in their conquering of the world in the name of Democracies. When in fact it was really about the pillage (by neocons) of the universe for the 5000 people called bankers. (U and I R commodities). It is these Roman Senatorial whores that have brought the enemy to our door step, once unlocked and open to all. Now we live in a fortress world. So take your socks off so I can ensure your toe nails are not dangerous weapons.

Mike, I worked at 620 west and it's not much of a fortrest. Its just ugly. It does have a couple of unique features that I can't elaborate about but otherwise it's obsolete. Best to move the command staff and administrative sections to citu hall. The rest could move near Deer Valley airport where a number of PD departments are located and be near the new FBI facility.

Part of me wants to defend the artifacts of modernism while another part just wants to shuck the entire project. I personally know architects who revel in trailblazers like Mies van der Rohe. Arizona's Al Beadle was often called a Miesean. In Portland, there was Pietro Belluschi who is revered by the cognoscenti and despised by everyone else. It's an argument that lives in my own brain and one I doubt will never be fully settled.

I think the "modermism" architecture attempted to advance was related to technological advances like steel fram construction, glass skin, high-speed elevators, and the exhaustion of historicism. I cannot imagine any vital culture simply continuing the beaux-arts tradition. It would have been both cloying and completely false. Yet if the artifacts of pre-modern archtitecture are so beloved, why can't we emulate them? Why not go back at least part way?

Economically, beaux-arts buildings would be simply unfeasible. There are no longer the quarries of limestone and granite let alone the craftsmen who could sculpt them for the facades. More importantly, there is no longer a marketplace for such quaintness. Whatever else World War II did, it ended that Greco-Roman fantasia once and for all.

People who drive cars, which we pretty much all do now, don't look at buildings in order to savor our relationship with noble gestures. We have moved - very fast - to something else entirely. Now we appraise our buildings through windshields going around 40 mph. We don't care if the buildings assuage the human spirit with any kind of gestures other than Let's Make a Deal. Bigger, Taller, Faster, Cheaper. Those are our cultural touchstones.

Phoenix drives like no other city except its model LA. One key difference: Phoenix was never as prosperous, so its modernism seems much more cut-rate. Still, there are a few pleasures to be seen like the exuberant WA Sarmiento tower and pavillions at the NEC of Central & Osborn. Sarmiento was from St Louis, so this points out another regrettable aspect of modernism: architects were often not local. Most of downtown's towers have architects we never heard of so there's often not a reinforcing style or aesthetic we can point to. This explains why Phoenix modernists revere Al Beadle as the quintessential local architect. Today, Will Bruder fills that position although he's really more a sculptor than an architect.

The Viad Building was designed by a team of Texas architects and appears as if it were airlifted in from Dallas in order to reign oppressively over Willo. It's completely out of scale to its location. Still, I guess Phoenix being Phoenix, it's something to talk about. It contributes absolutely nothing to Central Avenue's street activity, so it's 28 floors are largely a waste where it really matters.

Phoenix has a midcentury tradition that's largely unknown to most of its citizens, which is really unfortunate. I hesitate to say this, but at one time Phoenix was, in an eye-squinting sort of way, hip. We were what Palm Springs still is - a sensuous and lively outpost of modernists. Today, Phoenix is more like Lubbock on steroids. Nonetheless, for the very few people who care about this kind of thing, Phoenix is worth more than most people realize.

I like to tell people that if you can find something small and beautiful, your faith in the human project will be restored. That Phoenix is mostly alien and ugly is less important than the fact that there are still hopeful portents here and there. I wish there were more but you don't get to dictate the terms of your own surrender. The best anyone can do is resist the horror of drive-by architecture and create an intimate treasure that flouts the reigning contempt for beauty and pleasure.

The "Sandy" aka the world's largest solar hot dog cooker.
620 west is even uglier inside.

This is a wonderful little video about what makes cities attractive. Warning: Phoenix is compared unfavorably to Barcelona.


Excellent perspective, Soleri. Thank you.

Soleri- Bellushi's federal reserve building at SW 9 th and Stark is so elegant and classy. One of my favorite Portland buildings. The bank has relocated. Pictures don't do it justice.

Dawgzy, I know the building, and I agree. It is classy.

Belluschi's Commonwealth Building, a short distance away, was the first building in North America with a sheer glass curtain facade. It's more interesting as a "first" than anything else. When Belluschi came to Portland in the 1920s, he worked for the then-leading architect in town, AE Doyle. Doyle was a traditionalist and responsible for some of Portland's most-loved buildings, including the public library downtown. His works are the kind that give Portland it's fairy-tale prettiness. Say what you will, modernism has had a difficult time engaging the street either with retail or lively public spaces.

There were a couple of old buildings downtown that if they were still standing might have made Portland the most necessary tourist destination in America. The first was The Portland Hotel, designed by McKim, Mead, and White, and located where Pioneer Square is today. It had a flavor that might be called Salzburg Glühwein. The other was the old Oregonian building a block away with its faux campanile that looked like something from Florence.

Portland, like most American cities, gave away a king's ransom in exquisite old buildings but it still has enough to make it interesting, including the largest cache of cast-iron buildings outside New York City. Phoenix, a small city prior to WWII, was much less richly endowed. The struggle to create magic in downtown Phoenix results directly from this sad fact. It means that there's a kind of schizophrenia about the past resulting in cartoon-scapes like Chateaux on Central or the horrifying neo-Victoriana in Arcadia.

Just to be clear: I find Belluschi's work invigorating and and handsome. But I can't help but notice the magic in Portland springs more from old bricks that bracing geometries.

Modernism has a problem with scaling. Almost all preceding styles would reveal more levels of detailing as one neared a building. Note The Sandy. What you see is what you get. Nothing is going to be revealed as you near it; just boring sheets of glass. One can only assume it’s as boring on the inside as the out. Compare with an art-deco building; distinctive detailing down to the lighting switch plates, door knobs, elevator cars and tiling of the public areas.

I don’t think you need to go full Monty on the beaux-arts design. But I think you can use their ideas on detailing, proportion and gravitas. I think it is the only fitting style for certain governmental buildings. The structure says “We think this is important”. Again, note The Sandy; there’s nothing that says “I’m a court house”. It could just as easily be an office building, hospital or hotel.

Re “But I can't help but notice the magic in Portland springs more from old bricks that bracing geometries. (Solari)” I read this interesting article about a “new” building in Chicago (I think-it’s been a while). A developer wanted to tear down a nice old building (a department store, I think) and put up a high rise, glass box condo building. He was allowed to do this – except for one thing. He had to carefully remove the first four stories of the existing building’s façade and reapply it to the new building; down to the last detail, including show windows, doors, etc. There may have also been a requirement for first floor retail.

And it works. It looks a little odd at first. But who walks down the street and looks at anything but the first story or two of a building.

It's soleri.

It's an E, not an A.



You mention a few architectural jewels in your article but did not mention the Grunow Medical Clinic across McDowell from Good Sam. I noticed it for the first time a few weeks ago. It is a beautiful building that has served the community for more than 80 years and appears to still be in pristine condition.


Grunow Clinic: In 1959 I assisted in re-plastering the exterior and some individual interior rooms which were finished in white coat plaster and troweled to perfection by the folks I worked with. I do not recall if this was for Ora Hopper or Coty Reberger plastering and dry wall companies. For Coty I blew the stucco on the outside of the Catholic Church at 24 Street and Campbell. I also blew the undercoating on the old Telephone building on Central, now gone for a long time.

Correct me if I am wrong but I once heard the first truss joist to be made and transported to a home construction site was in Phoenix?

The cheese grater hotel building on 1st and Monroe that changes brands every couple years deserves a mention. Might be a dumpy Eenaissance at present.

Chris, the tragedy of the cheese grater is that it replaced the historic Hotel Adams. Imagine if that building had been preserved and restored as a historic hotel?


Great post, I love learning as much as possible about the architecture of the city. Took a tour of Taliesin West a year or two ago and learned quite a bit. FLW, as do I, find the gigantic power lines running through there oppressive. Reminds of a trilogy on "The Tripods" that I read many years ago...large machines astride the earth. I always think of that when I see those massive high tension power lines.

I don’t think you need to go full Monty on the beaux-arts design. But I think you can use their ideas on detailing, proportion and gravitas.

wkg, even here you will run into problems. American architecture was chastened into this proposition over 30 years ago during the "postmodern" period. Indeed, Portland helped lead the way with the construction of The Portland Building by Michael Graves. It unleashed a national movement that resulted in buildings with neo-classical proportions but coupled with the same cheap post-war materials. Portland's downtown is littered with these Lego toy-style buildings and none is more loathed than Graves' trailblazing prototype. It will require an eye-popping $300 million make-over due to structural deficiencies, terrible light, and ridiculously cheap ornamentation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portland_Building

Graves died recently, but he was a starchitect with huge crossover appeal. He designed kitchenware for Target, for example. In Denver, his public library was much more successful although it is not universally admired. Imagine film director Wes Anderson as an architect and you can catch a sense of his whimsy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denver_Public_Library#/media/File:Denver_Public_Library_1.jpg

In Phoenix, probably The Bank of America tower in The Collier Center comes closest to this style. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bank_of_America_Tower_%28Phoenix%29 I would be interested to read what other people have to say about it. It's probably my least favorite post-war building downtown except for the atrocious Sheraton Hotel (which was designed by Arquitectonica, a firm that specialized in postmodern designs). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheraton_Phoenix_Downtown A competing design by local firm, Cornoyer Hedrick, was much, much better - a midcentury homage that really sang.

Another post-modern practitioner was Cesar Pelli, who has designed the neo-deco Bank of America headquarters in Charlotte http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bank_of_America_Corporate_Centeralong with a new downtown library in Minneapolis and one of its iconic towers, the Wells Fargo Center. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wells_Fargo_Center_%28Minneapolis%29 . Pelli's designs are often effective but he couldn't bridge the gap between the music and its execution.

In Chicago, the Harold Washington Library is perhaps the worst offender of this school. From a medium distance, the building looms in the south Loop with the provocative grandeur of the Paris Opera. Up close and inside, the cheapness of the materials along with weak public spaces overwhelm everything else. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Washington_Library

Architecture can be no better than our social, economic, and political values. In the throwaway, drive-everywhere America of 2015, that will mean buildings that mirror our flaccid civic impulses. I wish there was another way to suggest we ennoble our cities with beautiful buildings, but it might be better simply to accept this destiny with equanimity.

Irony is the new black.

Way to complicated.
I prefer a structure that does not require Otis to be involved.
With wide doors and windows that actually open.

Re the Portland Building: Looks pretty clumsy. Seemed more of a play on art-deco than beaux-arts. That Phillip Johnson was on the selection committee says something. Didn’t stop the AIA from awarding it honor award though! As of 2011 it’s on the National Register of Historic Places! Is there a category for historically ugly? That the building has had no end of problems should come as no surprise; Graves had never built anything of significance before. He was a theory-guy and writer. He won the Brunner Memorial Prize for Architecture in 1980 – for drawing pictures of buildings that were never actually built. That the main lobby and food court needed a total redo only eight years after completion is telling.

As an aside, cheap materials are all modernist will use; it’s a badge of honor. Using anything else would result in their most serious insult: “How very bourgeois”. Quality materials, craftsmanship, detailing and ornamentation are not in most big-time architects’ playbook.

Re Bank of America Building: About the best I can say is that it’s better than a glass box. Seems to engage the street well from what I can see.

Re Chicago Library: I like the building up to the eaves. The roof structure is god-awful clumsy. I actually like the interior public spaces.

I neglected the Arizona Attorney General's building -- I have heard it was designed by a company that does prisons.

The other (real) back story is that this drab slab was meant to be half as long as it is, and was planned for another agency. When the state gave it to the AG instead, more space was required. So they doubled its length.

One must walk the entire length of the building depending on whom you are seeing, or for those working there. An amazingly bad building.

a moving walkway is scheduled.

There is no accounting for good taste - the Harold Washington Library, in Chicago, is one of the most good-awful buildings I ever saw. So glad Soleri mentioned it.

In contrast to the old Paris Opera bldg., the Washington bldg leaps out at you in it's awfulness - it doesn't fit into the Chicago tradition of ground breaking design excellence & innovation that Chicago is known for. The Washington library bldg. is truly a "prize-winner", of the lowest common denominator - so sayeth a Chicago native, now resettled in AZ.


Great to hear you on KJZZ today- With none other than Grady Gammage!
Listen here:

D, thanks for the link.

If U were not at the Poison Pen Book store last night, you missed a rousing conversation wit Jon and his publisher and owner of the book store. The crowd got involved also.
Jon talked about his new Mapstone Mystery book among other good issues. Thank you Jon and Susan for all your efforts and your caring for Phoenix and Arizona.

The new FBI building is not a very inviting building. It looks like a fortress although it sits at the end of the Deer Valley Airport...


I think the Cardinal stadium is one of the most ridiculous pieces of architecture. It looks like it fell out of the sky. Closest thing I have seen to a UFO.

S Stack, sometimes I hear it referred to as "the UFO" or "the spaceship in the desert" or other similar nicknames referenced now and then by television broadcast crews.

Supposedly it's a barrel cactus...but the futuristic look, sheeny slate gray just doesn't go well with that. I just don't really see it unless I really look for it.

Jon Kammen of the Republic did an excellent story on the boondoggle that was The Sandy.


The Arizona Executive Office Tower is a masterpiece of Soviet architecture.

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