Phoenix has always been a place where new is better than old. The central city has been remade time and again – adobes gave way to brick Victorians, which were supplanted by Art Deco towers. When the Civic Plaza was constructed on the land scraped free of the scary-but-historic area known as “The Deuce,” the blueprint, yet again, for remaking downtown was to tear it down and build something new. The pattern continued with public mega-projects such as America West Arena, Chase Field, and the Biomed Campus. These developments helped to revitalize downtown, but many also damaged the soul of authentic Phoenix.New, modern buildings are not necessarily incompatible with maintaining authenticity. Many modern uses don’t work within existing buildings. However, we need to do a better job of integrating the old with the new. Architects generally don’t like this approach because it constrains their vision. Developers don’t like it because it is harder and more costly. But the public can tell the difference, when given the chance. There is a longing for authenticity in those with Phoenix roots, people who like cities, and who have chosen to live in our urban core. The older, reused, and revitalized buildings of the past are the greatest contributors to the feeling of authenticity in downtown Phoenix. The new buildings just seem like filler.
Architects are still searching for authentic Phoenix. When the City Hall competition was taking place in the mid-1980s, there was a collective quest for defining a “Phoenix style.” Many entrants said that Phoenix was a place with no style, no traditions to follow – and therefore a clean slate. Those of us who were familiar with the history of building in Phoenix were surprised by this perception.
Authentic Phoenix is all around us. It lies in the buildings, landscapes, and streetscapes that were here before the waves of redevelopment began. Architect-designed landmarks such as the Luhrs Tower and the Security Building as well as nondescript warehouses and prewar neighborhoods are all part of authentic Phoenix.
We can learn a lot of important lessons from authentic Phoenix. After all, for a long time people had to live here without the two inventions that have now made Phoenix unsustainable: cars and air conditioners. The city may have been uncomfortable in the summer but it was livable, shady, green, walkable, and beautiful. Just the kind of place people want to live today.