Last August, I bought a car with a sun roof. No big deal for most people, but for someone like me, who loathes the sun and hates nothing more than climbing into the toaster oven that every automobile becomes in the summer, it wasn't my wisest move. (Before you condemn me for a fool, consider this: A sunroof was standard on the silly little Italian sports car I favored; it was either buy a car with a window on top or pay extra to have it removed. As much as I hate the heat, I hate spending money more.)
Even if I hadn't bought a car with a hole in its roof, I'd still be spending the summer doing what most all of us do, anyway, from May through November: driving around looking for a patch of shade to park in. If you've lived in Phoenix for more than a fortnight, I don't have to tell you that there's pretty much no shade to be found, anywhere. Most big, leafy, deciduous trees typically can't stand the heat here, and fewer are being planted every year. Architects and city planners tend to favor designs without overhangs, awnings, or porches. And don't get me started about the lack of underground parking and the paucity of parking garages downtown — I'll have to do a whole separate column about that.
Driving home along Indian School Road the other day, I decided to look for shade. Between 40th Street and Seventh Avenue, I saw not a single covered parking space under which to stash my car or a single clump of trees under which I might rest should I find myself outside at an hour when the thermostat told me it was 114 degrees out. Seriously, not one. What the hell?
There are some exceptions. Certainly you've seen those teeny, brushed-tin awnings at each of the light-rail stops. But whom are those supposed to shade? Even Twiggy would have to stand really still not to get sunburnt under one of these matchbook-size blinders. A couple of grocery stores are pretty good about offering shade. There's a Food City at McDowell Road and 20th Street with a parking lot that offers nothing but covered spaces, and a consumer-friendly AJ's at Lincoln and Scottsdale Road with a nice aluminum-and-canvas structure to provide shade for shoppers. But that's two markets out of a couple hundred, and neither is one that I want to shop at.
I do love the mid-century, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired spiral canopies — my spouse calls them "mushrooms" — that one sees here and there, notably at the Beatitudes Health Care Center on Glendale Avenue and the even more notable Frank Henry dendriform canopies at the Chase Bank on 44th Street at Camelback. And my editor is always talking about Tempe Marketplace, an outdoor mall that's spookily cool — thanks to giant metal canopies and a mall-wide misting system — even on the hottest day.
But these are rare shade-affording exceptions in a town that is essentially a convection oven a good part of the year. Snowbirds can talk all they want about how they'd rather be hot than have to shovel snow, but try driving around parking lots looking for a sliver of shadow to leave your car under for, say, a half a century, and you'll start to lose your mind a little. I promise.
It wasn't always this way. I live in a house built in 1924 that has a giant wrap-around porch and another long, narrow one out back. Nearly every one of the old homes in my neighborhood has at least a small patio that was put there by the home's designer to provide a little cool in July. Although most of them have long since been torn down, the downtown shopping plazas and outdoor strip malls built in the '20s and '30s all have long, wide overhangs to shield pedestrians from the horrid heat.
But somewhere along the way, architects working in the hottest spot since the surface of the sun gave up on porches and overhangs and parking structures; their landscapers abandoned elm trees and began planting sky-high palm trees and spindly ocotillos and other never-gonna-cast-a-cooling-shadow trees under which to become dehydrated.
That's because, according to custom-home builder Dominick Abatemarco, Phoenix is a city that really came into its architectural own in the middle of the past century, with contemporary architects like Al Beadle who favored tall walls of glass and a minimalist approach to design.
"An architect like Beadle wouldn't have added a big, nasty overhang to one of his homes," says Abatemarco, who himself lives in a Beadle-designed condo, "because it wouldn't fit or look good. Traditionalists and tract builders today don't bother with overhangs or porches because they add cost and they don't really fit in with local architectural style."
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The problem, according to Guillermo Lopez, is that designers and architects today are too deeply influenced by preserving the landscape. "They think that it's only natural for everything to be in bright sunlight," Lopez told me. "Shade is an indispensible part of the desert aesthetic. And you can't enjoy any of it — sunlight or landscape — if you're hot and uncomfortable and want to go inside."
Lopez is neither a professor of architecture nor a solar physicist. He's the president of Shade Masters, a local company that does nothing but manufacture things — patio awnings and canopies and the like — that create shade for the denizens of a town that desperately needs some.
The guy's a genius.