The Shaded Desert City



Wright at the wheel of a Packard at an Arizona camp in 1929. Image from Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
Wright at the wheel of a Packard at an Arizona camp in 1929. Image from Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

Modernism has shaped Phoenix’s history.  Our land area swelled as 20th century modern architecture came into its own. Modernism’s suburban slant condoned a frenetic grab for land on the periphery while simultaneously inspiring individual buildings influenced and surrounded by nature.  In contrast, as we enter the next century, tastes and development patterns are changing and for the first time since the 1920s growth inside US cities will outpace growth outside them.  As Phoenicians look forward to a growth cycle refocused on infill many are wondering what our next transformation will be – how we choose to preserve and celebrate our unique identity, understand modern architecture’s forms and materials in the desert, and reexamine modernism’s sprawling urban form will define our future city.   What can we learn from our past to define the future?

I am a native Arizonan, proud of my family’s pioneering move to the Valley decades before Arizona became a state. My Arizona family tree stretches back to the 1890s when my great-great-grandfather Smith moved to Glendale as a blacksmith.  He came to the Sonoran Desert shortly after the Arizona Canal Project brought water in 1885 and as

Glendale’s first residential neighborhoods were taking shape.   When he arrived he likely found what a visitor in 1905 described:

“Everywhere there is shade and plenty of it.  The entire valley, from Mesa into Phoenix, is one solid mass of green, and every road is a perfect avenue. Chinaberry trees, palm, and cottonwoods line the driveway, or lanes as they call them, and the entire distance from Mesa to Phoenix can be driven under an almost unbroken arch of shade.”

Investments still relevant today attracted Great-great grandpa Smith to the Valley: land newly platted for sale, made usable with water and promises of opportunity.  His profession added the final necessary piece to a functioning community – transportation – in those days mainly horses.  His son, Seth, translated his father’s profession of forging horseshoes into forging car parts, working for a Mesa Buick body shop until WWII.  Both men’s professions were signs of the times they lived and reflective of the transformations occurring in only one generation’s time.

Modernity was hitting Phoenix at a rapid pace.

Although my great-great grandfather was the first in the family to move to the Valley, it was his son’s generation that witnessed our city’s booming growth, combined with the 1930-adopted euclidean zoning code, transform a walkable and shaded urban core surrounded by farms into an auto-dependent metropolis.

Park Central Shopping Center opened in 1957. Photographer unknown.
Park Central Shopping Center opened in 1957. Photographer unknown.

In 1938 Seth and his wife Maude purchased a home in the first Phoenix suburbs, now Willo, within a short walk to the trolley car line where they could easily access a thriving downtown filled with shade, shops, cars and people.   Only a decade later, in 1948, busses had replaced the trolley and new residences leaped to Camelback with the first Haver neighborhood committed to bringing midcentury modern design to the masses.  In 1957 Seth and Maude witnessed the dairy where they pastured their cow develop into the first suburban mall, Park Central Shopping City, the beginning of the end of Downtown.

I’d like to highlight here that my family was already leaping between Glendale, Mesa and Phoenix, which when viewed in an aerial, were connected by farms with no noticeable desert between.  It is also interesting that the trolley line (before its demise to busses) stretched to Glendale and had plans to extend to Mesa, Tempe, and Scottsdale.  Valley residents already viewed the region as a series of economically and spatially interconnected nodes.  Perhaps it is because of this interconnectedness and already growing competition between cities that local leaders felt compelled to incorporate the expanse between the city centers in an effort to win the land grab.

We can witness the dramatic growth of Phoenix and the Valley – most of it initially between the various cities of the region – when we look at the increasing square footages of incorporated land over time.  In 1940 the City of Phoenix had grown from its original half-square-mile to 9.6 square miles.  By 1960, rapid annexation took hold and Phoenix bloated to 185 square miles.  Today Phoenix proper sprawls across 518 square miles and the metro region spreads over 16,573 square miles.  Maintaining a solid center in such a vast area gridded with streets – well, the center couldn’t hold.

Frank Lloyd Wright's sketches for Broadacre City. Image from Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

Interestingly, as Frank Lloyd Wright dreamed of a Broadacre City where every household had an acre farm and a car to speed around in, Phoenix started its still current trend of subdividisions swallowing farms.   Wright developed these visions as he established his western desert camp, Taliesin West, twenty miles outside the city.  In contrast to working farms or the bustle of Downtown, Wright was drawn to the isolation and the abstracted qualities of the desert’s rugged terrain and vast skies.   He was developing an artists’ enclave where he could create an architecture that speaks to and with the desert landscape.

Wright’s expression – and Modern architecture in general – was contingent upon space, lots of space.  Space has remained one of Phoenix’s exploited assets and the element that draws much of this story together.  Midcentury modern architecture, including Wright’s regional spin, Haver’s homes for the masses, and Sarmiento’s Phoenix Financial Center in Uptown consider architecture as a sculptural object.  The projects are to be seen from a distant angle or on the oblique view.  This is in contrast to previous architectural expressions that focused on the façade as a decorative element within the larger city fabric, such as Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building with its intricate textures waiting to be intimately touched.  Sculptural qualities in Sullivan’s Guaranty Building occur within the first few inches or feet of the building facade rather than the building’s overall massing as evidenced in Wright’s Taliesin West.

The Arizona School – or Desert Modern – has followed in the Wright tradition within the context of a city content with large lots and vast space.   We have learned valuable lessons from Wright and the successive Desert Modern movement regarding building in the desert while establishing a strong architectural vocabulary and identity.  Courtyards, patios, layered shade, materials reflective of the desert, and views of the landscape and sky typify Desert Modernism as the contemporary continuation of modern architecture in Arizona.  My hope is to retain those lessons as we return to our origins as a shaded and walkable urban city. I propose we translate these features from a suburban mode of development into a more urban attitude as we look to the future of Phoenix.  We can return our focus to early modernists such as Sullivan for inspiration while continuing the work of the Arizona School in creating an evolving Desert Modern architectural sensibility.

In 1934 Phoenix changed its nickname from ‘The Garden City’ to ‘The Valley of the Sun’ – perhaps now its time to reconsider ourselves as ‘The Shaded Desert City.’

This article was originally published in the spring edition of AIA Forum.  

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