Daily Archives: March 6, 2016

Saguaro National Park

We are now in the southwest, National Park heaven, where you sometimes find yourselves inside one without even trying. Big Bend was a precursor to this area for us, but now the giant crazy landforms are coming at such a pace that they’re getting their own fast-track on the blog.

Our first experience with National Parks on this trip was in Yellowstone, which we’ve come to think of as an anomaly.  Yellowstone isn’t one place, it’s a lot of distinct places in close proximity – big mountains, geysers and hot springs, wildlife, a big canyon, waterfalls, open plains and lakes, etc.  Most of the Parks in the Southwest seem to be more one-liners.  Of course there are a wide range of ways you can understand them – geologically, ecologically, culturally – but they don’t have the same breadth as Yellowstone.  Greta and I have discovered that our interest in geology lasts for about five minutes, and our interest in botany a bit longer.  We appreciate really cool looking rocks and mountains and plants, but we’re not all that interested in getting into a lot of depth about them.  For us, the distinct experiential character of each park depends upon two items:  what is the Big Concept for each (usually the reason it was seen as being significant and worth preserving), and how can we kinesthetically experience the park by hiking through it.  In the Badlands we realized that we dislike driving around and looking at scenery, but once we get out of the car, the experience of walking or climbing through the landscape is the way we come to appreciate it best.  So those readers who actually know something about rocks and plants will find my observations sophomoric (just as I would probably not be impressed with their insights into architecture).

DSCF6458Saguaro National Park sits on two small mountain ranges, on either side of Tucson.  It’s quite unusual to have such wilderness in such proximity to a pretty big city.  And from what we’ve seen, it’s also an anomaly for a southwestern National Park to not be about big piles of rock in amazing shapes.  The Big Idea in Saguaro is not the landform, but the vegetation.  It is the greatest collection of bizarre plants we’ve ever seen.  None of them are familiar, and most of them seem capable of hurting you really badly.  The saguaros are the main attraction, as they apparently exist here in a profusion unlike anywhere else in the US.  They are strange, DSCF6450they are big, DSCF6449and they look just like they do in Roadrunner cartoons.  (Lots of things in the southwest look just like they do in Roadrunner cartoons.)  We just rambled around among them, soaking up the weirdness – especially the idea of a saguaro forest.DSCF6444

There are many other equally strange, but smaller, plants around.  Lots of cacti and yuccas and agave and such.  DSCF6423(We learn their names when we see them, and forget them within a few days.)  I am pleased when I see one that apparently has an afterlife as tequila or mescal.DSCF6417

We took some short hikes in Saguaro, and decided to not try any longer ones, as we didn’t think they’d seem very different to us.  It struck me that Saguaro is a modular place – every 50 foot by 50 foot area is incredibly interesting, in the variety and strangeness of the juxtaposed plants.  But then the next 50 by 50 foot plot is about the same.  You don’t hike to a sublime view, or have a wide variety of rock-scrambling experiences.  Our local informant in the culture assured us that changes in the environment occur when you move to higher elevations, especially in the mountains to the east of Tucson, but we were camping on the west side and didn’t feel like a drive across the metropolitan area.  So we spent our time looking more closely at what was right around us, instead of charging across the park trying to cover it all.  We camped in a fabulous county campground right next to the National Park, which was quiet and dark, and a little eerie with the howling of coyote packs throughout the night.  The serious RVers put string LED lights under their RVs at night, probably to keep the varmints away.  Lots of lizards scurrying around, and we managed to avoid the one rattlesnake we heard was near the trail up ahead of us.

The aforementioned local informant was Daniel Beckman, the son of Bob and Susan, previously chronicled in the post college friends.  Daniel grew up outside Philadelphia, attended Brown, where he did things related to political science and theater, and then during an internship at Joshua Tree National Park, fell in love with the big spaces of The West.  He now works for the Park Service, and is involved in activities such as invasive plant eradication, while attending the local community college to learn all the applicable science he didn’t learn in college.  (We unfortunately missed seeing him in his role as the Park mascot Sunny the Saguaro, which he undertook for the Park Service 100th anniversary celebration at Saguaro one day we were there.  We think he saw us coming and hid so that I couldn’t post any photos of him in costume.)DSCF6556

We went to the neighborhood Mexican restaurant near his house (which in itself might be enough of a reason to move to the southwest), and as two East Coast refugees, we talked a lot about the the differences in living in the two different places, and how one can know when you’ve found the right place.  I was impressed with his willingness to strike out into unknown territory, to change his location, his intellectual focus, and his whole way of living – something that’s not easy to do at any age.  But Daniel seems very happy in his new life, and perhaps he has found the right place for him.DSCF6415


DSCF6506If you haven’t travelled extensively in an area, you still have many preconceptions about it, formed through what you’ve heard or read or seen on TV – some of which may actually turn out to be true.  Texas was where this became most apparent to me, as I had an abundance of received cultural knowledge and opinions about it, even though I had never before ventured out of DFW.  Although I had travelled through the Southwest a few times, I had never been south of Phoenix, so my opinion of Tucson was similarly secondhand.  All I knew was the syllogism – Tucson:Phoenix as Austin:Houston.  Just as Austin is the place in Texas distinguished by being nothing like the rest of Texas, Tucson is the place in Arizona that symbolically stands in contrast to the horrors of Phoenix.

Tucson is one of those mid-sized American cities (metropolitan area population under one million) which is livable and pleasant due to its not being within the ambit of the flow of global capital, nor prosperous enough recently to have grown exponentially in the past 30 years, when the homogeneous American sprawlscape reached its true apotheosis, and when the banal behemoths of recent skyscrapers have overwhelmed older downtowns.

Tucson also is fortunate in its limiting geography:  just as Portland is hemmed in by the west hills and the rivers, Tucson has mountain ranges to the east and west, so the sprawl in those directions is finite.  Also luckily, large areas of both those mountain ranges have been set aside, both as part of Saguaro National Park, and as other state and local preserves.  We stayed in a county campground adjacent to Saguaro on the west side, one which was so quiet and dark that we could watch the stars and listen to the coyote packs at night;  this is within ten miles of the city.  Phoenix has the misfortune to be in a much larger valley, so the sprawl can go on unimpeded for fifty miles in each direction, while Tucson is about twelve miles wide.  Aerial photos confirm that Tucson hasn’t sprawled very much in the past 30 years, so its suburbs exhibit a blend of the old and the new that can also be seen in its downtown, and which may be the key factor in whether a district has any character or not.  (cf. jane Jacobs again.)

Both cities are college towns, and while the much larger Arizona State dominates the cityscape around Tempe, it feels like a more local phenomenon within Phoenix’s four-million metro area.  The University of Arizona is still large (about 32,000 students), and it seems to be more central to the character of the whole city, as it is less than a mile from the downtown.

We cruised through the suburbs on our way to and from the mountains, and swung by something called Old Tucson, which started out as a movie set back in the 30s, but which is now a western theme park.  We arrived at the end of the day, just as the Wild, Wild West Steampunk convention crowd was leaving.  It was a little scary, and seems to have knocked Greta out of her steampunk fascination, as she has seen the future and it’s not a pretty sight.  DSCF6437

We spent more time in the city core.  The downtown has a lot of buildings from the 60s and 70s, DSCF6470

which are not gorgeous, but at least they’re not too big.  There are also some not-great institutions, such as the library DSCF6464

and some newer buildings which aren’t much better.  DSCF6466

The Tucson downtown can’t seem to make up its mind – is it a city downtown, where fabric buildings define the public spaces of the streets and squares, or is it an edge city office park, where object buildings sit isolated in a sea of parking and undefined open space?  The open spaces are just too big, the developable lots are too big, and while the object buildings cry out for attention, they’re really not very good.  Tucson committed only one ghastly error, creating a superblock around their county government campus, where a subterranean parking level may hide a lot of cars, but which disrupts the street pattern and channelizes traffic onto a few big arterials.  The no pedestrian sign is the tip-off of the portal to this netherworld.DSCF6474

I don’t know the history, but it looks like they urban-renewed (bulldozed) their old downtown (or an adjoining neighborhood, probably “blighted”) during the 60s, and replaced it with these towers (versus Eugene which bulldozed its downtown and forgot to build anything new).  And then probably having overbuilt their office market, things ground to a halt.  It’s not great, but it’s fixable. DSCF6460

The good news is that the adjacent neighborhoods – Barrio Viejo, Armory Park and Iron Horse – were largely left alone.  Today they are the usual mix of gentrifying bungalows, small multi-family projects, light industrial and new commercial that can be seen in many other older city first-ring cores.  There was a reasonable amount of street life in all these areas, even on a Sunday.  The damage was limited to the one core area, and even that is better than many we’ve seen.

The university area, which is surrounded by low-scale residential neighborhoods, felt familiar.  A nice mix of small-scale, old multi-family: DSCF6479

and upscaling bungalows (the Mini being the universal sign of this), although they are getting some large, privately-developed student housing, just as in Eugene.  DSCF6554

The college-town commercial area is very lively, with many open-air cafes, such as in  this lovely courtyard development.  DSCF6547

The campus itself is beautiful.  It is similar to the University of Oregon, being within a city but with a distinct campus edge, rather than blending into the city fabric.  Also similarly, the campus has a well-landscaped core, with elegant old buildings, all variants on a brick/southwest style, set in manicured lawns.  DSCF6516


But the recent development is the most interesting.  They have done a fantastic job of fitting relatively large, new buildings into the existing framework, not overwhelming the scale of the campus, nor adhering slavishly to stylistic prescriptions (both of which happened at the University of Texas).  The buildings themselves are also good to excellent, and are notable for the uniformity with which they have addressed environmental issues (primarily sun-shading) in this desert environment.  An older US government building on the edge of the campus has a screen wall which defines a courtyard:DSCF6485

A new building at the business school has a south-facing facade which utilizes both palm trees and a sophisticated brise-soleil for shading.  DSCF6503

Even spotted from a long way across campus, my instincts told me that this was the architecture school.  It is in fact a large addition to design college (CAPLA), designed almost ten years ago by Jones Studio, in Tempe.  The environmentally-responsive diagram is completely straightforward:  a long east-west bar, with extensive and deep shading on the south side.  DSCF6520

There are architectural shading elements, as well as a framework for plants, and a garden area where a native landscape is nurtured and used for installations. DSCF6528  DSCF6524

The east and west walls are mostly blank, with circulation DSCF6531

and access into an openable shop on the ground floor.  DSCF6533

The north side, which faces a major arterial, is glazed for daylighting the studios.  DSCF6535

An excellent building, which takes it cues from the strong determinative forces of climate and program, and which articulates those in a systems-driven building with elegant detailing.  It is a truism that in most places, the new architecture building is usually the worst building on campus – architects seem to feel the need to make a design  “statement” when given such a visible project.  It was a pleasure to see Jones Studio take an opposite tack, and do all the sensible moves really well, illustrating what an architecture driven by substantive ideas rather than style can be like.

I don’t know much about the architecture department at the university, but outside the university’s downtown center, I spotted this amazing sign:  DSCF6462

They seem to think that it is a good idea for their faculty to be involved in the design of architecture;  in fact, they celebrate it!  This is probably good for their accreditation, and even good for their students’ education, but I don’t know how they can maintain this attitude within the confines of a big research university, where the preference for the written article over the designed building has become almost universal.  (If it hadn’t been a Sunday I might have dropped in to explore job opportunities, as they appear to be deficient in the proportion of cranky old guys on their faculty.)

There is an even newer, bigger showcase building on the south edge of campus – the Engineering and Natural Resources Building 2, designed by Richärd+Bauer and GLHN, both from Phoenix.  It opened last year, and has been lauded for its sustainability performance and its support for interdisciplinary efforts.  The south elevation has a functional yet expressive shading system,DSCF6491

with an occupiable colonnade tucked under the building edge, offering respite from the busy arterial.  DSCF6483

The north facade has a thinner variant on the shading system.  DSCF6499

The middle of the building is a deep courtyard, which supports daylighting and ventilation strategies, and which works metaphorically as a slot canyon.  DSCF6495

Another building where the ideas of building performance drive the architectural expression;  something is clearly going on in the university culture, if they are producing so many fine buildings.  We saw one more element, which simultaneously puts the University of Arizona at the forefront of sustainability, livability and hipness:DSCF6496

There are lessons we could learn from this university, and lessons both positive and negative at the city scale.  I had my limited preconceptions about Tucson before we visited, but the reality turned out to be even more interesting.