A forlorn picket shuffles listlessly across the forecourt of America West Arena, trying to rain a little conscience on the crowd celebrating the opening of this entertainment palace. His sign reads:


No one's paying attention; the crowd--later estimated at 60,000--is in a festive mood, far more interested in exploring the new arena than in social agendas. What, one wonders, would the reaction be if some agitator were to show up with a sign like this:


Bafflement, probably. No one here on opening day seems to have any complaints about the arena's design, and anyone churlish enough to snipe at it would be paddling against the torrent of praise--beautiful place," "purple palace," "Jerry Colangelo's castle--being unleashed by the Arizona Republic. In fact, the reason the arena seems to be enjoying such universal acclaim is that there isn't much architecture in it. The designers took no chances, blazed no trails, made no provocation. And consequently they made nobody mad.

America West Arena is what architects call a "background" building. This was not an accident, and the designers didn't do it out of ineptitude or timidity. It was a conscious decision. "People hardly noticed the building while it was under construction," says Mike Hallmark, senior vice president of Ellerbe Becket Architects and principal architect of the arena. Hallmark works out of the firm's Los Angeles office. "I'd fly into Phoenix and ask a cab driver to take me to America West Arena, and he wouldn't know where it was. I took that as a compliment." Hallmark says it was because of the arena's colossal size that he didn't try to build a starship or a crystal palace; he wanted the building to exert a calming influence on downtown Phoenix instead of exploding into the skyline and roaring for attention. But the problem with a stealth colossus is that, in terms of architecture, downtown Phoenix is already calmer than a Quaalude, and the very thing we needed here was one million square feet of Architecture Power--a dramatic monument, a masterpiece, a city symbol. In fairness to Ellerbe Becket, this is asking a lot of a $90 million arena. "The Toronto SkyDome is a half-billion-dollar building," Hallmark says. "We did a $200 million renovation on Madison Square Garden--interiors alone." You can begin to hear that ol' familiar Phoenix song of opportunity squandered in a stroll south down Central Avenue. At Patriots Square, the view to the arena opens up and suddenly comes a vision of what downtown Phoenix could have been--if the park had been extended another block east, across a submerged Central, to embrace the main entrance to the arena. As it is, the sightline hiccups over a U S Parking Systems lot between the square and the arena--another example, as if we needed one, of downtown city planning lacking the vision thing. If you drive into the arena's attached parking garage, you may hear another scratchy old chorus: "Why don't architects ever talk to people?" People would tell them: Number the damned parking spaces so we can find our cars. Number 3023 would be up the ramp from number 3013, and so on. Descend from the garage and walk to the main entrance, at Jefferson and First streets, and you may begin to feel less grumpy. For the approaching pedestrian, the arena has a welcoming attitude. It's hard to make a building of such enormous size say anything to people on the street except, "Go away, you little fart, or I'll drop a concrete block on you." Making this monster talk friendlier are several architectural tricks that break down its monolithic nature.

First Hallmark pushed the foundation 20 feet below grade to reduce the arena's apparent height. As a downtown building, people see it only from close quarters, so a less-imposing bulk makes it seem more approachable. "This wouldn't be an issue in the suburbs," says Hallmark. "Out there we might have wanted to dominate the landscape." That forecourt facing the intersection of Jefferson and First streets also helps the arena appear more inviting, since it creates a processional space leading toward the main entrance or the ticket windows. If there hadn't been any open space around the arena--that is, if the building had butted against the streets on all four sides of its block--it would have seemed greatly more brutal. Hallmark also designed what he calls "mitigating structures" that pop out of the arena's sides--the restaurant and Suns' Team Shop, for example. These break up monolithic wall surfaces and lower the height of what passersby see of the building. What the arena lacks for the approaching pedestrian, however, is the sensation of wonder. This isn't some gargantuan office building designed to house a plodding army of accountants and lawyers; it's a building for entertainment, and its architecture, in some way, needs to reflect the structure's purpose. The best of the Valley's public buildings do that: Brophy Prep, Gammage Auditorium, Arizona Biltmore, Nelson Fine Arts Center. In a perverse (and presumably unintentional) way, even the arena's neighbor, Phoenix Civic Plaza, does it: As you trudge toward that stale and monotonous warehouse, you know you're about to be bored to death in some useless convention. This doesn't mean that the arena should have been encrusted with artificial merriment like postmodern gargoyles. That wouldn't have reflected its real purpose, either: The Phoenix Suns, for all their entertainment value, are a serious business. What the arena needs is some magic. Inside, a Suns game will generate a palpable sense of community among the fans; outside, the architecture ideally would do likewise. Once its novelty wears off, this building will virtually disappear. Inside, fans of the Suns or Linda Ronstadt will be treated to some pleasant amenities. The king-size arcades looping the seating areas are high, airy and splashed with welcome daylight from glass-block, clerestory windows. There are trash cans every ten yards or so, along with what seems like an endless ring of Pizza Huts and hot-dog stands. Once ensconced in your seat, you may not feel quite so coddled. There isn't much legroom--it's virtually impossible to squeeze past the jungle of knees, shins and feet without forcing their owners to stand up. Hallmark doesn't think there is a solution. The "tread," or distance between seat centers, is 33 inches, same as in Veterans' Memorial Coliseum, same as the nationwide standard for arena seating. "Some have even less," he says. "And remember, for every inch you add to those treads, that pushes the guy in the last row several feet back." Like so many issues in architecture, it's a trade-off. Both Hallmark and Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo have talked at length about the building's intimacy, pointing out that the most distant seat is actually 24 feet closer to center court than in the smaller Coliseum. This is an admirable achievement, but it also raises a question that nobody, in the effusive glow of pride over the new arena, seems to be asking: Just how "intimate" can the experience of sharing a basketball game or concert with 19,000 other people be? In other words, could the very concept of a giant sports arena-concert coliseum eventually become a dinosaur? What percentage of people will keep wanting to drive to a downtown arena, pay five bucks just to park, dodge a gauntlet of scowling cops and fidget in a cramped seat with mozzarella from the Personal Pan pizzas in the next row dripping onto their necks? Is there a happier (and more intimate) time to be had at home, with the Suns on cable or Ronstadt on CD, with a few good friends clustered around the home-entertainment altar? Maybe. The leaping technology of home entertainment has already started to threaten such ancient entertainments as live symphony orchestra concerts. Given one more generation's technological progress and ever-increasing acquaintance with electronic entertainment, the audience for live sports and concerts could begin to shrink. If it did, that would alarm more people than those who have a financial stake in the arena, because it's only through gathering--physically--that a city can also be a community. If the city is to have vibrancy and feel good about itself, electronics is no substitute for rubbing shoulders, stepping on feet, celebrating a monster dunk with 19,000 other people and weaving around pickets protesting assorted injustices. This is why the architecture of a community center like the arena is so critical: It can either be a dramatic and symbolic gathering place, or a simple container for possibly endangered species of events. In the last 20 years, downtown Phoenix has generated a lot of containers: the architecturally frigid Phoenix Civic Plaza and Symphony Hall, a halfhearted Patriots Square, a dead-on-arrival Mercado, a vast but uninteresting deck park. Arizona Center pointed tentatively toward a livelier future. America West Arena should have been that future.


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Lawrence W. Cheek