Phoenix is where you can see the Platonic ideal of sprawl – what low-density, car-based development looks like when there is no pre-existing central city to get in the way. To paraphrase Lou Kahn, I asked the sprawl what it wanted to be, and it said Phoenix.
The large cities of the east and midwest existed before cars, and a system of highways and roads had to be retrofitted in and around them to support the new means of transport. Sub-urbia, as it was then conceived, implied a relationship to a central city.
Los Angeles was not a very big place in the 19th century, and its growth paralleled the rise of the automobile in the pre-war era. It became the new paradigm for the American city in the early 20th-century. Los Angeles is our most important car-based megalopolis, and it came to represent the image of sprawl in our collective imagination, with its highways, drive-ins and congestion.
But suburban growth and sprawl really took off in the post-war era. 19th-century cities acquired rings of highways and suburbs, and early 20th-century cities did the same. American metropolitan areas became almost uniformly low-density around a central city, but with other centers in the region too, as nearby cities were subsumed in the sprawl.
Phoenix exemplifies the new, post-war city. There was almost nothing there before WWII – it had around 100,000 residents in 1950 (with some more in places like Tempe and Scottsdale). The exponential growth began when developers such as Del Webb realized it could become the retirement center of the west (with its warm weather and vast expanses of cheap land), matching Florida’s role in the east. Like southern Florida, the Phoenix economy has been largely based upon people moving there and then selling them houses and stuff. And like every other place in the South or Sun Belt, its habitability is based upon the automobile, air conditioning and television. Before the widespread adoption of these technologies, there was a sharp limit on how many people would live in a place like Phoenix.
There are several key differences in the urban and regional form of a city like Phoenix and older cities. Since there was not a high-density central city to and from and through which large numbers of cars had to be moved, a comprehensive system of high-capacity, limited-access highways was not developed. (This may also be partly due to Phoenix not existing as a large city when the interstate highway system was initiated in 1956.) Phoenix is the largest American city I’ve seen where the highway system is not relevant to car circulation in much of the city.
Phoenix didn’t exist in a region of small towns and cities – which then had the spaces between them filled with suburbia until they formed one large metropolitan region – as happened in older regions. There was some irrigation-based agriculture, and there was a system of canals to serve this, but there wasn’t a significant concentration of population anywhere. Growth did not happen incrementally or through infill. A district in Phoenix is usually either a desert, or it is completely developed all at once.
The street pattern of Phoenix is based upon the national grid of townships, with major arterial roads occurring every mile. Since the density of the metropolitan area is fairly uniform, the roadway system can be sized to accommodate the corresponding uniform density of traffic. Phoenix is a gridded network, not a branching-tree hierarchical system as is seen in much of the rest of the country. Since the land was undeveloped before WWII, there was no pre-existing system of undersized farm roads which had to either retrofitted with difficulty, or supplanted by the highway system. So as the districts developed all at once, the roadways could be built at the appropriate size for the ultimate density
This is a typical view while driving an arterial in Phoenix – with the neighborhood behind shielded by sound walls. And while the arterial system is a repetitive grid, the street network within the grid is configured to be as confusing and disconnected as possible – the better to thwart drivers looking for shortcuts across your domain.
The residential neighborhoods are basically all new, roughly in successive rings out from the center, although leapfrogging development is not uncommon. Each is completely homogeneous, having been built in large parcels by one builder. Stylistically, they are all very similar, in a vague southwestern faux-adobe or stucco – it appears that a crop-dusting plane flies over each neighborhood every five years, spraying everything with a coat of Dryvit. In layout they are more similar to tract houses of their era in other parts of the country than to older houses in the region (following the rule that in a mass culture things vary by time but not by location). They are walled-off from the street more frequently than is normal in other parts of the country, and you can never be sure what is going on behind those walls.
There is some isolated great architecture in Phoenix – Taliesin West, Will Bruder’s library, the Arizona Biltmore, etc., but we didn’t see them on this trip. I had seen them fairly recently, and after getting dragged all around Texas cities, Greta had reached her limit on architecture, and just wanted to blow out of town and get back to the desert as quickly as possible. I was also daunted but the prospect of slogging through Phoenix traffic – we were staying on the western edge of the region, and most of the architecture was far to the east. We did brave the Sunday traffic, and I dragged Greta through the downtown, and then lured her to Tempe with the prospect of good food.
Phoenix has two distinct clusters of density. The region around Camelback is the center of retail, while the downtown is for business, branches of the major universities, and large events – conventions, major league sports and performing arts. It is nothing like a traditional downtown, more closely resembling an edge city office cluster. This makes sense, as its history is nothing like a traditional city’s. Whereas older cities usually have downtowns that retain older buildings and districts, Phoenix has none of this – we found one older building. The strange inversion of Phoenix is that the downtown is newer than the sprawl. It’s like the city reached a certain size and then made a decision to have a more dense downtown, and so redeveloped the whole area.
Next door is the Symphony Hall from 1972, the lone institution downtown which exhibits the local solid masonry wall tectonic, a not-inappropriate reference to vernacular pueblo architecture, before it was supplanted by the hegemony of the glass curtain wall (in the desert).
Arizona State and other universities have opened branch campuses downtown, mostly serving their professional schools and medical complexes. They are good individual buildings, which are paying a lot of attention to sun screening, and getting a lot of expressive mileage out of that strategy.
The Arizona State campus contains our favorite thing in the city – a huge cone of net, floating above a plaza, by the artist Janet Echelman (and completed with our colleague Philip Speranza as a consultant). It really is beautiful, and provides visual entertainment, as you lie in the grass, soaking up the sun.
There is a sports district on the south side of the downtown, apparently a baseball stadium and a basketball arena, although it’s hard to tell. I can’t remember their corporate sponsorship names (but that doesn’t matter, as they will certainly be renamed soon.) They are in the style that might be called Faux Old Timey, or Times Square Wannabe. Sports venues used to be Ducks (exhibiting their function in their form). Now they are often Decorated Sheds, with the exterior being covered with some 21st century architect’s evocation of what the era of urban vitality used to look like. The exuberance of the facades contrasts with the utter desolation of the streetscape – not a pedestrian to be seen, except when there is a sporting event. Many cities now have equally dead sports zones, but few go to such elaborate lengths to try to disguise the inherent death of real street life.
Downtown Phoenix is not very coherent as a city center, but it does have some good buildings. It was notable that all the interesting architecture has been built by the universities, whereas the more typical downtown buildings of offices and hotels are completely banal.
We moved on to Tempe, looking for the gastropub Greta had selected. One the way, we discovered some interesting things. Tempe may have generic buildings too, but everything looks better when you add in a river (dammed at this point to create a wider body of water) and have a butte in the near distance to give the city some scale.
We also visited the Tempe Center for the Arts along the river, designed by Barton Myers, clearly referring to the history of FLW and his followers being active in this area. It is a very nice building, with simple planes of solid panels and selective use of glazing to open the lobby up to the river on the north.
The fundamental question about Phoenix (and other late 20th century cities) is whether their character has been inexorably formed by the new way they came into being – sprawl before core – or whether their current character is mainly the result of their being so new. Will they become more like older cities as they age, or is there something permanently different about them? We may never see the answer to this in Phoenix. With NASA’S prediction of a mega-drought occurring in the Southwest in this century, it seems likely that Phoenix will become uninhabitable before it has the opportunity to evolve. Our trip theme of climate-change-farewell-tour has usually focussed on what will be changing in the natural environment, but the changes that will be coming to cities have become more apparent as we have traveled through Miami, New Orleans and Phoenix.