L.A. Firm Meets Design Challenge

Among the numerous recent design competitions across the country scratching for notability, if not notoriety, one of the more challenging and coveted was for the government center of Phoenix.

Beyond the parochial pride that the competition, involving an impressive array of international architects, was won by the Los Angeles-(and Toronto) based firm of Barton Myers Associates, some insights emerged in the Phoenix process that are quite pertinent to Southern California's urban outposts.

The competition involved developing no less than a master land-use plan and compatible designs for a cluster of new civic buildings in a sprawling 12-block area in the middle of a metropolitan area marked by some of the more spectacular, speculative and slovenly growth in the nation.

The challenge was to lend an identity to a bland downtown studded with an incongruous collection of ordinary corporate and civic structures laid out on a tedious grid. While the location was Phoenix, the description could very well apply to dozens of Southern California communities.

Making the competition coveted was the ego satisfaction to those involved in putting one's stamp on a city and the tantalizing promise that the winner would be the principal architect for up to $100 million of construction.

Unlike most other competitions these days, and the narrow aesthetic and intellectual pretenses of some self-anointed architectural stars and sycophantic academics, the concern was not with structures as pieces of sculpture but as shapers of places people might use and enjoy.

Indeed, the competition reflected a growing awareness that in many cases, more important than a building itself, no matter how trendy its mix of materials and decorations, are spaces created by a building. It was this healthy concern for urban design on which the Phoenix competition turned.

Entering the competition were about 100 architects from around the world. Eventually, a jury of five "public" members and four "professionals," including Charles Jencks of UCLA and David Gebhard of UC Santa Barbara, culled the list to four principal architects. These included Michael Graves of Princeton, Arata Isozaki of Japan, whose major work in the United States to date is the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, now nearing completion downtown, and Ricardo Legorreta of Mexico, and Myers.

Legorreta, with Leason Pomeroy of Orange, proposed in essence an urban village, rerouting streets and banishing traffic from a complex of plazas, gardens, bridges, moats and brightly colored buildings. The thrust of the scheme was to create a "heart" for Phoenix. It certainly throbbed.

Isozaki, in partnership with Gruen Associates of Los Angeles, leaned toward the monumental, marked by an arched entrance, a so-called "city gate," leading into a vast ceremonial plaza set off by classical-styled civic, cultural and commercial structures clad in a deep red sandstone. The total was quite bold.

More symbolic, as expected, was the scheme by the post-modernist Graves, in association with the Phoenix firm of GSAS. He proposed a formal civic square of gardens, pools and plantings bordered by neo-Italian Renaissance-styled arcaded buildings. Hovering over the complex on top of a 180-foot classical column would be a phoenix bird.

Myers also proposed a tower topped with a phoenix, albeit at 250 feet, and a cluster of distinctive low-rise buildings and a civic square. But he skewed the square, labeled it "the city room," lined it with loggias, and suggested that it be covered with a shading device during the region's sweltering months. And he recommended that the streets be kept open for traffic, though designed so they could be closed for special events. The scheme was both monumental and informal, a contradiction that makes for a lively cityscape.

Though the sensitive scale and playful styling of Myers' submission clearly offered the most potential to humanize a bland downtown, all the proposals would have generated a new excitement to Phoenix.

Also exciting is that a city would seek a design of such scale to identify its urban character and recognize how it might be dignified and enlivened with architecture. It is this type of thinking--this vision of the potential design can lend a community--that Los Angeles can use.

As the Southern California firms that participated in the Phoenix competition demonstrated, the talent is certainly here. And also here is the suffering cityscape that, with imagination and leadership, could be reshaped to better serve a burgeoning population.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World