Phoenix, the Final Frontier

People refer to Phoenix as an up-and-coming city; they call it a late-night ghost town, a sweatbox, a suburban desert. But what it looks more and more like all the time is a deserted movie set. And the film that's just wrapped here is a cheesy sci-fi flick about an outer space invasion.

By the looks of things, the space monsters who swooped down from on high (perhaps to knock over buildings and gobble up our light-rail system, because all one sees around here lately are demolition sites and empty rail tracks snaking through downtown Phoenix) left behind several dozen of their spacecraft. Our arid landscape is littered with grounded saucers; cluttered with outer-space domes and spires, with rocket ship-shaped churches and banks and movie houses.

Who among us hasn't marveled at Capstone Cathedral (4633 East Shea Boulevard), the low, hulking saucer of a church that used to house nut-job Neal Frisby's congregation but now sits empty. (Or does it? It's easy to imagine that any second now, a tentacled stop-motion monster will come slithering out of the cathedral's dome — at least, it's easy to imagine this if you're me.) The pie-shaped Compass Room perched atop the Hyatt (122 North Second Street) looks less like a restaurant than a spacecraft landed for refueling. And I love the extraterrestrial umbrellas that surround both the Camelview Cinema and that magnificent, Flintstone-esque, Frank Henry-designed Chase Manhattan complex at 44th Street and Camelback, which people always point to as another example of a "spaceship building" but which I think looks more like the underside of an old theater seat encrusted with wads of spent chewing gum. Those umbrellas constitute a daunting constellation of celestial sunshades that appear, like Klaatu's shiny silver saucermobile in The Day the Earth Stood Still, to be standing in wait. But for what?

Tempe has its share of spacecraft as well. There's ASU's recently demolished Geodesic Dome building, the former site of yet another Chase Manhattan Bank that looked more like a set piece from Lost in Space than it did a lending institution. (One of a handful of such structures left in the country, the building was bulldozed in February to make room for a new dormitory, its roof placed in storage until it can be reassembled as the roof of another ASU building.) And there's the big, shiny, $52 million inverted pyramid that is Tempe City Hall (31 East Fifth Street), which always reminds me of that attraction at Disney World's Tomorrowland, the one where squeaky animatronic "spacemen" lean into your moon pod and ask you to take them to your leader. I worry about the impact that working in an office with walls that slope at 45-degree angles has on the politicians and public servants employed at this 50,000-square-foot complex. But I live in Phoenix, so it doesn't really affect me all that much.

My favorite, though, is the Phoenix Financial Center (3443 North Central; also known as "the punch-card building"). Anyone who's ever wandered the grounds of this wacked-out wonder knows what it means to be an extra in a George Lucas film. Attached to the towering computer punch card is a pair of perfectly round, glass-encased domes that are so space age that they were used as a principal location in the Mike Nichols extraterrestrial comedy What Planet Are You From? starring Garry Shandling and Annette Bening. The complex, built in 1963 by the Financial Corporation of Arizona, is home to mortgage brokers and investment bankers, its ATMs resting under a colossal pair of concrete flippers that scream "Buck Rogers!"

But Walt Lockley, an architecture writer based in Phoenix (whose archived essays about cool buildings can be found at, says that the Financial Center's influence comes not from a Martian space station, but from Brazil.


"If the Financial Center reminds you of Rio, that's because its architect, Wenceslaus Alfonso Sarmiento, worked for a leading Brazilian architect for decades," Lockley says. He insists that all those curvy architectural "gestures" are Brazil-influenced and not meant to look ultramodern or spacy. "All these buildings look futuristic because they're so flamboyant," Lockley says. "And so brave."

Perhaps the bravest of these is that just-landed battleship from Mars known as the Tempe Center for the Arts (700 West Rio Salado Parkway). Designed by Tempe-based architecture firm Architekton in partnership with L.A.'s Barton Myers Associates Inc., the $67 million, 88,000-square-foot multipurpose facility is a mammoth metallic mountain of a space pod crammed onto the banks of Tempe Town Lake. It's the latest intergalactic example of the sort of architecture that's taking over the valley. Soon, our fair city will look more like an amusement park on Pluto than a desert community. The heck with Brazil — this is a space invasion.

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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