You unenlightened souls probably took one look at the new McDowell Arch at 16th Street (imagine driving under a picket fence), shook your heads and muttered, "This is the limit."

But when it comes to the cutting edge, the McDowell curio can't hold a candle to what the country's Next Big Architect has on his drawing board for Phoenix.

Given his head, Manhattan-based Steven Holl would like to battle Phoenix's urban sprawl by effectively turning the Valley into a sort of Stalag 2001.

The hypothetical plan for Phoenix is part of "Edge of a City," a Holl exhibition currently on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Holl's show also includes models and plans addressing six other cities: Dallas; Fort Worth; Cleveland; New York City; Milan, Italy; and Fukuoka, Japan.

"Phoenix is, for me, very interesting--it's one of the most rapidly sprawling cities in America," says the fortysomething Holl, who is currently being lionized by both the architectural and mainstream press. (When Esquire ran a one-page review of a couch Holl had designed, the writer drooled that the $5,000 piece of furniture was "a sofa about sofaness.")

Explaining that Phoenix captured his imagination over the course of several visits, Holl says, "This project's concept is about edges, what we can do and what could be proposed as edges."

Some observers, after viewing Holl's sketches and models for a future Phoenix, might conclude that the architect has gone over one of those edges himself. His answer to urban sprawl? Ring the entire metropolitan area with a 140-foot-high pueblolike wall of open-air apartments and offices. It's a LEGO-style labyrinth that would supposedly squash sprawl by marking the edge of civilization. Beyond the wall? Desert.

Characterizing his sci-fi Phoenix proposal as "visionary," Holl says via telephone that it would have been a waste of time to ask city planners about the feasibility of rimming the Valley with a residential retaining wall.

"In fact," he says, "the nature of this work is really at that edge where it's outside the jurisdiction of the planner." The Japan and Milan proposals were commissioned works, Holl says, while the proposals for Phoenix and the three other cities were purely his way to "project futures for architecture."
Translation: Don't hold your breath waiting for an invitation to the groundbreaking ceremonies.

So does that mean that the Great Wall of Phoenix is really just one man's pie in the sky? "I suppose a pragmatist might say that," says Holl, dryly. But even this modern-day Howard Roark admits that the way sprawl-minded developers continually suck up vacant land, it's a cinch his brain child will never get off the ground anytime soon.

Still, Holl says it's time to wake up and dream. "In our time, it seems that we need visions because everything now is nose-to-the-grindstone pragmatism," he says. "That's what's gotten our environment into the shape it's in."

Holl isn't the first architect to find himself drafting dreams after a visit to Phoenix. "Arizona is a place where radical urban propositions have often been made," reports John Meunier, dean of ASU's College of Architecture and Enviromental Design. Pointing to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Arcosanti's Paolo Soleri, Meunier adds, "For Steven Holl to be producing some radical ideas about the shape of the environment is well within the sense of that tradition. We really can't have enough of that--we only benefit from ideas that challenge the norms."

But is Phoenix really ready for the Holl shebang?
Probably not yet. "In some ways this is a very reactionary idea," says Meunier. "It says `Enough's enough! Let's form an edge. Let's stomp the growth of Phoenix out.' In some ways that's a very un-American idea. The American idea has always been that people should be allowed to pursue their own fates and that within that normal framework of planning, there are those who are going to want to live on the edge and there are those who are going to want to live in the middle."

Straddling the wall, Meunier suggests that upon closer inspection, Holl's proposal isn't all that revolutionary after all. During the Forties, for example, English law required some towns to establish greenbelts beyond which no buildings could be erected. Meunier also cites similarities between Holl's Phoenix project and some radical designs produced in Russia during the Twenties.

Although the Russian project was never built, Meunier is fascinated that the Valley is one of the very few places in the world to boast an example of that type of building. Namely, the skyboxes at Sun Devil Stadium. "Of course, they're different aesthetically," says Meunier. "But if you took the skyboxes away from the stadium and built them out on the edge of the desert, you'd have something very close to what Steve Holl is suggesting."

It's a LEGO-style labyrinth that would supposedly squash sprawl by marking the edge of civilization.

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Dewey Webb