Tower of Babble

What's all the hubbub about downtown's new hub?

Whatever else you might say about Patriots Square, you can credit it with the overdue arrival of architecture criticism in Phoenix. The monsoons of invective that have buffeted the park and its architect, Ted Alexander, haven't all sprung from cool and reasoned analysis, but there's nothing wrong with bloody-fisted emotional reactions to a work of architecture. We ought to flog architects more often; it might help.

Now that the park is open for business, it's time for cool analysis, but this isn't going to be easy--how do you follow lines such as, "TAKE THIS PARK AND SHOVE IT" (New Times, June 29 and July 6)? I feel a little like a TV critic sitting down at year's end, thoughtfully scratching his temple and writing: "Whither Geraldo?"

Well, this isn't going to be that gentle.
Alexander has an anecdote he likes to tell in beginning to explain Patriots Square. A few years ago, he says, he was walking along a sidewalk when a group of tourists, cameras in hand, stopped him for directions.

"Where's downtown?" they asked.
"This is downtown," he replied.
That encounter, he says, confirmed for him the complete failure of downtown Phoenix, both as a place for people and as the city's functional and symbolic heart. It's painfully obvious that he's right: No other big city in North America has such a desolate core. No retail, little entertainment, scant public art and almost no mentionable architecture--the lone distinguished high-rise, Luhrs Tower, is sixty years old, and it is in a state of dereliction.

And there's nowhere for people to gather, no public agora. The Civic Plaza offers a concrete tundra so bleak that people shun it even on cool winter days. Heritage Square is a nice try to save the slim ghosts of Phoenix past, but it has the unhappy whiff of desperation about it--eight old Victorian spinsters huddled together, trying to preserve a trace of dignity as the parking lots lap at their skirts.

When Alexander got the Patriots Square commission, he says, he saw more than an opportunity to create a pleasant little urban park, which is all the city had asked for. He sensed a chance to fix downtown Phoenix.

"There were two other ideas I wanted to explore," he explains. "One was to try to create an evening destination downtown. As it is now, unless you're going to the symphony, you don't go. The other was to make a landmark for Phoenix."

He began with a leitmotif: circles. He believes it's a "friendly" geometric form. Circles, he says, are easy to approach, easy to wander among. Rectangles rebuff people and force them into rigid patterns of movement. In Patriots Square, circles abound. The small circular forms of the planters and incidental benches bite into larger circles enclosing grassy knolls, and all these encircle the semicircular amphitheatre. Cylinders wearing copper hats serve as dressing rooms, food kiosks and elevator terminals. Wander among all these curvilinear forms and notice how they seem to tease and upbraid the relentlessly right-angled buildings and street grid around the park, like clowns bursting in on a dull board meeting. In this role of visual mischief-maker, the park is more than welcome downtown.

Alexander has caught critical hell for dressing the entire park in red bricks, as people imagine all the solar energy they will absorb and re-radiate on a 115-degree summer day. His defense is simple and, I think, adequate: wait till the trees grow. He also views a brick as a humane, congenial object: It fits neatly in the grasp of a hand, and it's a part of everyone's experience. "We've all lived in a home somewhere in the country that was made of brick," he says. "We've all laid brick, even if we just stacked them for shelves in an apartment. A brick is a craftsman thing; you always know a human being laid it."

No quarrel at all here with either the geometry or materials. As you meander among the circles and fountains, the little park seems to exude good cheer. The trouble springs from Alexander's attempt to make it something more than a little park.

Let's start with the dome. No one argues with the idea of shading the amphitheatre, but the dark mood of the structure contradicts all those nice, friendly circles lounging around. It looms over the park like a nightmare-sized tarantula glowering at its doomed prey. Drive by on Central or Washington and you're not sure the park is a place you want to go; the feeling is not so much one of mystery but of vague malevolence.

It's this "feeling," or people's emotional responses to architecture, that so few architects ever figure out how to predict. Some feel uncomfortable even talking about it, as if it were a matter for limp-wristed philosophers. To the great Estonian-American architect Louis Kahn, however, it was the most important element of architecture. Before form, before materials, even before function, Kahn said, the architect must consider feeling.

The spire bursting out of the dome has sparked the most colorful commentary to date. (The laser show, still awaiting another $50,000 in fund-raising, could top it.) In conception, it sounds wonderful: More circles, semicircles and light globes leapfrogging rhythmically into the sky, frozen in a joyous and intricate ballet. In execution, it's too busy to seem rhythmic, and too odd to exude joy. And it's dated. It looks like a Martian obelisk from a sci-fi flick of the Fifties, or like a Frank Lloyd Wright knockoff--look at Gammage Center. However, even when he was being silly--look at Gammage Center--Wright was able to invest his work with poetic grace. Alexander's spire isn't a poem, just an overly busy advertisement. And considered as an ad, as a city symbol, the question nags: What does it have to do with Phoenix?

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