More on my fiction writing

« America last | Main | The Confederacy and us »

June 01, 2017


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Wow - THAT is a great image. Thanks for running it, Jon.

I wonder what exactly caused Phoenix to become an architectural desert?

Was it an almost universal disinterest in the art? Was it something like an extreme profit motive that shunned it as an extraneous cost? Was it the belief that the climate sold the place so buildings didn't need to have beauty and grace? A combination of all of the above? Or something else?

I think it's obvious that rogue has a sense of something forever lost, and I'm sure he agrees that Phoenix was a blank slate that could have been an esthetic masterpiece.

What happened?


I'm not sure I understand your question. I've written columns about Phoenix's architectural distinctiveness, as well as the urban fabric of old downtown. It was not an architectural desert.

To be sure, old Phoenix was not wealthy and populous during what to my mind were the greatest flowerings of architecture and urban design, from the late 19th century until the Great Depression. So it wasn't going to have the bones of a Cincinnati.

The city also came of age during the height of mid-century architecture and the auto age, as well as mass-production sprawl tract housing. The results are some delightful mid-cen modern structures, but spread out amid much dreariness. And once that architectural era passed, the fringes were mostly off-the-shelf stick built and tilt-up structures.

I recall something Will Bruder said some years back how Phoenix actually had some great buildings but that they were all several miles apart from one another.

Downtown Phoenix was memorialized best - and quite fittingly - in Hitchcock's Psycho. At the start, Janet Leigh is having a tryst with John Gavin in the semi-fleabag Hotel Jefferson. She decides to abscond with $40,000 from her job in the real estate-industrial complex. There in a nutshell is everything you need to know about Phoenix.

I saw this movie when I was 12 years old in downtown Phoenix and I haven't seen it whole since then. Why spoil a legend? I made that mistake with Vertigo and and the second time was like a trip to Eloy. I did reprise Orson Welles' Touch of Evil recently, and the eerie similarities to Psycho really jumped out: Janet Leigh, a disreputable motel in the middle of nowhere, and a screwball innkeeper, this one played by Dennis Weaver.

When I think about the good 'ol days and lost youth, I inevitably inventory the great things we once had. That's human nature, of course. Phoenix has a nice vibe back in the 1950s, but it was, if anything, sleazier than it is today. There's a reason to regret the homogenizing effects of a tightly-connected global economy for this reason. Local color will be the first casualty. This isn't just Phoenix's story. It's everywhere. Our hometowns once had unique character but it's all disappearing faster than we care to know. Phoenix will stake its claim to greatness in population stats and new housing starts. It's better than nothing but it's not enough to make the city interesting.

rogue, my questions relate to why all the dreariness exists. I'm just guessing artful and visual esthetics weren't high up on any builder's list(if they existed at all). In this sense, I'm probably am posing my questions about the larger structures, to which you've mentioned no real planning existed. This resulted in the divided skyline.

You have in previous columns related to the "make a quick buck" attitude that seemed prevalent during the boom. That may answer most of what I asked.


Phoenix has also lost some great architecture to development. Without historic designations/protections minimal in Phoenix, older brick homes are stucco'd and painted as part of the current flip-this-house portfolio of Phoenix. Larger buildings, if not covered by a facade, require a tax-credit to keep developers from not opting for a cheap demo-and-build-new approach.

On a side note, I was researching the historic designation application for my neighborhood (it really has no teeth, unlike a Registered Historic Place, but you get the cute street signs) and it's funny to me to think about what will be historic in Phoenix in 50 years. Will I designate every other city block in Chandler because the cookie cutter McMansions still stand as a testament to "the architecture of the time"?

Speaking of cities that start with a P.

Portland is looking pretty bad lately.

As I've said in past years, I'll take in your face racism any day over the insidious racism that lies just under the surface hiding under a false front.

Earth to Ruben: what kind of "insidious racism that lies just under the surface....." results in an openly racist right-winger (who had a long history of publicly demonstrating with people like him) haranguing two teenagers on a Portland train before slashing the throats of three white men for defending those teenagers? Were those men guilty of putting on a "false front"?

I eagerly await a similar display of courage from any Zonie. The degree of unconsciousness on the right is simply stunning.

Reality to soleri,

sorry buddy, everything is "super" in Portland, OR.

My mistake, I must have been thinking about Portland, Maine.

Enjoy your leftie delirium.

Bradley, another take architecture in the desert. I have over the years talked to a number of "artists" that say there is a lack of energy in Phoenix. They have told me that other cities seem to have an energy that Phoenix does not. They say there is a heaviness that seems to push downward on their creative spirit. I am not quite sure what that means as i know squat about art or architecture. But I do know that from Dubai to Seattle and back there seems to be a lot of "great (?) architecture".

Maybe the Sonoran desert was not meant to be invaded by developers and maybe the best erections are not man made. Maybe it is not architecture in the desert but the desert is architecture?

If you want to see what I think the artists might be feeling just visit the Sun Cities of the Valley of the Sun. Damn Depressing I think.

An example of how ugly a building can be in a great stand of the mighty Sajuaro. Look closely can you see the coyotee?
Kinda like the hidden rocking chair in a Baje Whitethorn painting.

Some "great" monuments. (IMHO)

architecture and The pressing heat

A building boom and climate change create an even hotter, drier Phoenix

Climatologists have serious doubts that Phoenix will be habitable in the future: After 2050, it could easily become typical for temperatures to reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit or more

Ruben, I know it's tough talking across the ideological divide, but you chose to bash a city for no better reason than smug know-nothingism. Three Portlanders behaved heroically before having their throats slit and it's proof to you that this city must be racist.

Please. Stop. Now.

The problem with low-information right-wingers is that they think tribally. Portland is one of those places that seems to be an affront to Real Americans. Therefore, find a reason to attack it even when it responded to an attack from one of their own in a way that actual patriotic Americans can be proud of.

Unlike most of life, there's no gray area here. I doubt even vermin like Sean Hannity would stoop to your level.

In case you missed it, here's Nick Kristof's beautiful eulogy:

Cal, I can empathize with you about a big city in the Sonoran Desert.

But if the desert was to be despoiled, at least some thought should have occurred toward making that development aesthetically pleasing.

Sadly, aesthetics were seldom anywhere in the majority of developments in Phoenix. The sameness of it all was visually numbing and stupefying.

However, I never found great beauty in a big bank account.

Banks are ugly places and we failed to take Jeffersons advice about banks. I repeat bankers run the world. There are only 5000 people in the world, Bankers. Everyone else is a commodity. Big banks remind me of big architecturally "beautiful" Church's.
They are both built on the backs of the poor.

Sometimes, after reading some postings, here, I realize my brain is pretty limited.
My inferior intellectual abilities make me think Margaret Sanger may have been right.

Hey Ruben wanta join me in self deporting from the planet earth? "I hear there is a hell of a planet next door".

Regarding the piece on the front pages about Trump, Putin and the state department. Trump an zputin have a lot of the sameness. Dictorial, Narrsistic, egotistical minds. But it's hard to miss the White in Russia and the Pale face in America.

Big Towns: they come and go.

“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break....I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”
― Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness

Cal, but what about the "rock heads" running the country? How long will they last under the "water torture" of rising sea level?

From global warming, we already have a "baking oven" scenario for Phoenix, which I hope will not happen, but I fear I have to defer to the scientists on that.

Your ref. to article from Cap X on mergers is very interesting.I have just finished a book on Teddy Roosevelt and have been interested for a long time on why we allow mergers that are trusts that Roosevelt fought against.I have yet to find a single person who is happy with airline service even though prices have come down with mergers.The same seems to apply to all sectors of the economy -banks,cars,electronics,furniture,etc.Your view would be much appreciated .

Cal-much appreciate post on Abbey.You and I are closer to end than the beginning and isn't it a shame that people in charge don't appreciate that only the rocks and the sun are permanent.Come to think of it even the sun is going to end at some point.

Great post Jon, thank you. I'm intrigued by this statement:

"Even now, Phoenix has many characteristics of a small town, especially in power and power relationships."

You may have covered what you are talking about in a previous column, but could you clarify this? (or point me to the past column)

One thing I've been thinking about lately is the Council-Manager for of government (which Phoenix is the largest city with this type of government in the world) and its potentially unintended consequences in shaping what the city has become.

The desert:

You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale; you have to understand geological time.
Wallace Stegner

Always glad to see you on the comments string, Ex Phx Planner.

In my experience, the power elite of Phoenix is a small group. Everybody knows each other. There's a subgroup in the East Valley. But in a similar-sized metro, it would be unusual to see such a small bunch.

Here's one partial compare-and-contrast: When I lived full-time in Phoenix, the most important people were the governor, mayor, and president of ASU. All on the public payroll. In Seattle, you'd have to go way down the list before you reached that. Private-sector moguls, city-focused developers, philanthropists of major means, civic stewards, activists with real power.

I just returned to Phoenix after almost a month in northern Italy and Slovenia, including a week in Milan.

While there I discovered the Frecciarossa (Red Arrow), Italy's "bullet train" that, for some reason, has not gotten the attention of the TGV in France or the Shinkansen in Japan. On one trip, we absolutely SCREAMED across northern Italy, Bologna to Milan, at 185 miles per hour. The Frecciarossa train was spit-and-polish clean and, of course, unbelievably FAST. We made it from Bologna to Milan in one hour flat. (A similar train from Phoenix to Los Angeles could make that trip in a little over two hours. That would beat the hassle of flying, or the long drive, and perhaps the thing could be at least partially powered by the abundant solar radiation along its route.)

Milan has 1,369,000 residents in the city proper, in about 70 square miles (Phoenix, about 1,550,000 in 517 square miles). Because of its compactness, Milan can provide an efficient and fast subway system supplemented by an extensive network of bus and light-rail lines. You can get everywhere. The city is also scooter- and bike-friendly.

The Po river valley, which we saw at first hand, is a rich and productive agricultural breadbasket. Unlike Phoenix, Milan's sprawl (and there is some) has not obliterated the agricultural powerhouse surrounding it.

All of this is just to say that there are better models than American sprawl for building viable and dynamic cities. Milan is not perfect -- it can be crowded and dirty -- but it also has a dynamism I find utterly lacking in Phoenix. In the evening, the residents engage in the custom of the
passeggiata -- filling the streets, eating, drinking, and interacting. The undercurrent of interpersonal hostility that so defines Americans seems to be lacking...

There are other ways to live than cosseted, isolated, and heavily armed in a suburban stucco-and-tile job, fearing your neighbor, and having to have a stable of cars just to get to work or shop for groceries.

Great comment from Joe Schallan.

I was in Milan and Turin a few years ago, and they are jewel-like by comparison to most American cities. We've paid a very steep price here in our social ecology by making cars necessary. It's probably one of the major reasons there is so much despair and anger in our country. People are frustrated and lonely and look for someone or the government to blame. Sadly, it's our cities that have dehumanized us. Cars ruin everything.

Thanks, soleri. It is interesting to look at Phoenix's urban landscape with fresh eyes and realize just how much square footage has been surrendered to the needs of the automobile. I have wondered just what percentage of a suburban square mile is taken up by heat-absorbing (and radiating) concrete and asphalt. A Google satellite view suggests that the number is high.

Joe, Phoenix is a disaster, figuratively speaking. And in the not-too-distant future, this disaster will be all-too literal.

I've made my peace with my hometown and wish it the best. It was never a great city but it did have certain balmy pleasures, like summer thunderstorms, citrus groves, and the stunning Sonoran desert that to my youthful eyes was the face of God. There were quirky characters, a fascinating history, and extraordinary optimism. That's almost all gone now and in its place are millions of people driving from one end of nowhere to the other.

America is a dying nation. Our sadness is not just the Rust Belt or Appalachia, however. It's everywhere. We're overfed and undernourished, angry and self-pitying, rootless and lost. We make up for our chronic unease with endless distractions but they can't disguise the emptiness in our souls. Our harbinger of decline is a reality TV star/president, utterly vacuous and consumed by cravings for sex, food, attention, and TV. That's America, too. We drove ourselves to this destiny in monster trucks until the roads dead-ended in a place somebody once loved.

Enjoying the discussion by Joe and Soleri.

I had an eye-opening experience similar to that of Joe - but in reverse - on a recent visit to the US from Tokyo.

It was a business trip that included a few east-coast cities. For scheduling flexibility I thought I might go "on-the- fly" by train from NY to Boston rather than book an airline ticket. That would be easy to do here in Japan. But it turned out to be impractical given the low frequency of service and that the trip would take almost 4 hours.

By comparison, the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagoya (about the same distance) takes less than 2 hours with departures every 10-15 minutes. Both stations are easily accessible by local subway and other mass transit, and you can buy tickets on the spot (including from vending machines). For short-haul trips the Shinkansen is very competitive with air travel, which is just great for travelers.

We should encourage more of our fellow Americans to travel outside the country to see what they're missing and judge for themselves.

Quite an elegy and eulogy, soleri, and one with which I have to agree, with sadness.

Rogue and ex-Phx Planner:
IMHO the problem is that greater Phoenix lacks aggressive private-sector champions. That leaves even charter cities at the mercy of the legislature. Given the youth of the Valley, we lack multigenerational business dynasties. We also lack Silicon Valley hipster billionaire types. Jerry Colangelo did great things for the City, but he's one guy, and a transplant at that. We're nobody's company town. Our business community is both undersized and disproportionately comprised of companies content with a high growth, low wage, bad education economy. So, there is no pressure on the GOP-dominated state government to change course. Jon Kul was the last senator to do anything for his home state, and since the CAP we've gotten hardly any pork. We've been lucky just to keep Like. The least of our problems is the absence of big-city politics on Arizona's cities and towns.

As Rogue has written about elsewhere, in addition to lack of preservation, much of the problem is that many of Phoenix's largest buildings were not built until after the Beaux Arts and Art Deco periods. A disproportionate number of noticeable buildings in Phoenix (for instance what is now Chase Tower, 1972) were not constructed until e erroneous was designing and building ugly and/or brutalist things. Phoenix has some perfectly lovely buildings, like the old Professional Building immediately south of Chase Tower (now a hotel whose name escapes me with Nook restaurant. Dallas and Los Angeles have similar problems, architecturally. Phoenix had the misfortune to grow up in the 1970s, when everyone's taste in everything sucked. Check out the Billboard Top 40 from 1878 if you really want to be depressed.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)