Best of Phoenix

Best of Phoenix 2015: Landscape Designer Steve Martino Emphasizes Calls His Creations "Garden Architecture"

For more of the best people, places and things to do in Phoenix, check out our 2015 Best of Phoenix awards. 

I'm that rare thing: a Phoenix native. I was born here in 1946 to immigrant parents. My mother was from Canada and my father from Italy. I was raised in Phoenix and left home in the eighth grade to live on a ranch. My high school years were spent in Queen Creek, and my favorite pastime was horseback riding in the San Tan Mountains, where I developed an interest in the desert.

I studied architecture at ASU and became interested in the space around and between buildings. After looking hard at Phoenix's built environment I had a "what's wrong with this picture?" epiphany. I was dismayed at how much more interesting the desert was than the city, and surprised by the lack of respect for and interest in the desert environment that architecture, the landscape industry, and the general public had. I had the idea that I wanted to use desert plants in my projects to make the projects and the plants more meaningful. That idea was met with so much resistance that it became my own personal "mission impossible." So much so that I got sidetracked from architecture and became a landscape architect without ever having had a single landscape class.

I wanted nothing more than to bring the desert back into the city, but at first, getting people to love desert plants was like trying to get people to buy weeds, which is practically what they were seen as. I read somewhere that I had to build my stage before I could act on it, and it turned out to be true. I had to develop a desert vernacular that I felt should already have been here but wasn't. And then every one of my projects had to act as a demonstration to prove the beauty of desert plants.

Eventually, it worked. And then, when the xeriscape movement came along in the early '80s, the xeriscapers latched onto my work as a sample of low-water-use landscaping. But their only interest was in saving water, while I was interested in the beauty and environmental benefits of native plants. I was always being called an "Arizona xeriscaper" in magazines, though the word never came up in interviews. The concept of xeriscape was developed by municipalities trying to protect themselves from environmentally clueless landscape architects. I would get calls from people wanting me to give them a xeriscape garden. I would say, "Sure, where do you live? I'll send over a truckload of gravel."

I love the color and diversity of the desert's distinct plants. You have to respect them for how they've adapted to this harsh climate. The desert itself is spectacular and scary at the same time. I love the fact that you can see mountains that are rocks rather than piles of dirt covered in trees. The Sonoran Desert has an identity that cannot be mistaken for any place else. — as told to Robrt L. Pela

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela