Visual Arts

Slick Transit

When Scottsdale began talking about developing a new downtown transit center several years ago, urban-design junkies had plenty of cause to roll their eyes and mutter, "Here comes more Frontiertown." The doodads the city had added to its downtown streets in the early 1990s had only bolstered its reputation for having the West's Most Western Yahoo Taste. And early plans were for the transit depot simply to perpetuate the Southwestern hokum. But thanks to some adventurous city officials, and a collaboration among Scottsdale architect Doug Sydnor, Tempe landscape architect Angela Dye, New York artist Vito Acconci and the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, the Loloma Transit Station is truly something else.

Planners call the new station multimodal, transit lingo for a place serving a variety of ways to get around. Like most things transit, the concept is new to the Valley, but old just about every other civilized place. Past transit facilities here have been little more than bus turnarounds. However, the Loloma Station, opened in July, is staffed to provide bus information and tickets. It has rest rooms, a small police outpost, bicycle storage and four outdoor, swamp-cooled waiting areas. An ATM is in the works. A snack bar is expected to open by the end of the year.

And when the site's 60-some palobrea trees mature, it should be a comfortably shady connection for riders using Scottsdale's trolleys, buses, horse-drawn carriages, resort shuttles, taxis and tour coaches. More than bus tickets, Loloma Station sells the idea that transit depots ought to attract rather than repel people--they should be hubs in every urban sense of the word.

"Back when we began planning it," says Michelle Korf, Scottsdale's transit director, "we brainstormed with the downtown planners, who saw the opportunity for this to be more than just a transfer station for bus riders. We began thinking of it as a destination in and of itself--a place of activity where people could linger."

The real draw at the moment is the station's slabbed-earth design. The main building, clock tower and five shade structures were made to look as though they were formed by peeling up the top layer of ground. The layer rises to form walls; the walls unfold and extend themselves into shade canopies and roofs.

To further emphasize the sense that the ground you walk on is also the roof that shelters you, the shapes of the buildings taper toward several vanishing points in the plaza and adjacent streets. Like pebbles dropped in ponds, the vanishing points radiate light and dark concrete rings across the site and up the sides of the various buildings.

The results of the elaborate patterning and origami are mixed. On the one hand, the sculptural concept imposes an angular clunkiness on the buildings. On the other, it turns the clock tower--rising part raptor, part flip phone more than 40 feet into the air--into a gem of an urban landmark. This sculptural timepiece offers a fresh Southwestern take on the old European model of the clock in the town square.

The tower has a couple of simple yet beautiful touches: the soft, earthen and atmospheric colors of its surfaces, for instance; the way the two faces of the clock tilt downward to give people a flat-on, undistorted view of the circle of numbers within the square; and the way the clock conveys in a glance the dual sense that this is the time and this is the place.

Architecture is a collaborative art, typically requiring a many-headed team of architects, engineers, landscape architects and other design professionals. Yet Scottsdale officials and members of the design team say artist Vito Acconci was instrumental in developing the distinctive concept for the $3 million station ($2.4 million of which came from the Federal Transit Administration). Acconci's participation was funded with $30,000 from the city's public art program.

Korf readily admits that Acconci's selection by a panel of the Scottsdale Cultural Council, which runs the public art program, initially made her wonder where the project might be headed.

In a 1994 memo to the Scottsdale Cultural Council, she pointed out that Acconci views his projects, in his words, "as an attempt to go under the site, so that the site isn't as stable as it used to be--to attach itself like a leech, to instill something inside the site like a parasite . . . so that it bursts out from within. . . ."

At the time, it wasn't clear what or how parasites would contribute to the Valley's transit experience. But as the design process developed, Acconci took the conceptual lead. "Everybody on the design team obviously played key roles," says Korf. "But I sensed that Vito drove the process. He was continually throwing concepts together and letting the others revise and respond to them. So there was a constant push and pull of ideas going on."

The clock tower was on the city's early list of possibilities. But it wasn't Acconci's first preference. "Vito initially came up with the idea that if we could get people up in the air, just a little bit, they could see so much more of the area," says Angela Dye, the project's landscape architect. "So, instead of a clock tower, we were first thinking of an observation tower."

Architect Doug Sydnor recalls that when the team went up in a cherry picker to test the idea, "There was no question about its merit. There were some beautiful views of Camelback Mountain, Papago Buttes and the McDowells."

But turning the idea into an affordable and a practical architectural plan was another matter. Acconci's first models proposed a ramp spiraling upward--the ground unpeeling like the skin of an orange.

"The result was a kind of raised lid that served a number of purposes," says Sydnor. "It was an inclined walk, and as it rose into the air it became a shade structure and a roof over the passenger-services building." But before long, reality struck. Some city officials saw the ramp as a death run of young skateboarders colliding with elderly tourists. Reflecting pools around the base of the structure raised concerns about water use. The numerous changes in levels filled the site with obstacles that would make it virtually impassable. Trees typically don't do well in planters up in the air. And without trees, the elevated ramp promised to be a commuter cooker in the summer. Moreover, the scheme far exceeded the project's $2.1 million construction budget.

Nevertheless, say Sydnor and Dye (Acconci was unavailable for comment), the first take contained the key concept found in the station's final plan: that of transforming the ground plane into vertical structures. Sydnor says it took a year and a half, and about 20 generations of architectural plans and 15 site plans, to reach the built design. "What it boiled down to," says Dye, "was deciding which of Vito's ideas were really viable and which ones weren't. Often the ideas we tested had only a kernel of usefulness. And many others just fell by the wayside."

Time will tell whether the station becomes the urban catalyst the city hopes. What's clear for now is it brings some welcomed new meaning to the idea of Southwestern design.

Loloma Transit Station occupies a 1.8-acre site at Marshall Way and Second Street in Scottsdale.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow