Wall Eyed

Two experts look askance at Tucson architecture.

Ever wonder why Tucson pays so little mind to the way it looks?

This city's the kind of place that would rather shear off a chunk of historic St. Philip's courtyard, designed by one of its most beloved architects, than dismantle a box of electronic cables across the street. The kind of place that compromises the world-class Ventana Canyon resort by allowing new McMansions to mar its mountain views. A city that salivates over developers who lay waste to the desert, parading their beige and pink little boxes over the former saguaro land as far as the eye can see.

That's the way the city has operated ever since its start as a ragtag fort on the Spanish frontier.

In a lecture last week, prompted by the publication of their new book, A Guide to Tucson Architecture, architectural historians Anne M. Nequette and R. Brooks Jeffery explained that the Spanish used assorted forms of architecture as what Jeffery called a "behavior modification device." The colonizers erected missions, pueblos and presidios all over the vast territory of New Spain to assert their power over the conquered. Soaring mission churches announced the superior powers of the Christian deity. Elegantly planned pueblos reflected Old World notions of order, with a church and government buildings surrounding a central plaza. The presidios, though, had few aspirations to architectural glory; their more mundane goal was military protection.

Tucson lucked out with Mission San Xavier, which Jeffery called "one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture." But unlike the lovely Mexican pueblos to its south, the city itself got neither a fine plaza nor an elaborate cathedral, at least not at first. Instead it got a barricaded fort meant to protect this remote edge of New Spain from the Apaches. Erected between 1775 and 1783 in a giant square that took in what's now City Hall and the Tucson Museum of Art, the presidio faced west to the Santa Cruz River, then a reliable source of water, and to the small mission visita on the river's west bank. Its thick adobe walls, 12 feet high, enclosed rough barracks and storerooms. And though the little fort did have a church and a pair of unshapely plazas, the authors tell us in their informative book, unfortunately for Tucson, "owing to its frontier location, the Spanish urban form never developed [here] to the same degree as in other cities."

And the frontier mentality has persisted. Nineteenth-century Tucsonans looted the crumbling presidio's adobe bricks, initiating the city's unrelenting pattern of destroying its past as it hurtles into the future. The most egregious example is the urban renewal of the 1960s, when the city bulldozed a whole barrio of century-old Sonoran adobe rowhouses to make way for a dispiriting modernist wasteland. The vast Tucson Convention Center and its attendant parking lots, as well as new city and county towers, and the fortress-like police and fire stations, replaced a pedestrian-friendly tangle of houses and shops and gardens. La Placita and the fast lanes of Broadway obliterated La Plaza de la Mesilla, a Mexican-style church plaza that had evolved south of the Presidio.

In the quick excursion through Tucson's architectural history that opens the book, Nequette and Jeffery trace the roots of the disaster to the radically different ideas of space held by Mexicans and Americans. The Mexican model, haughtily disparaged in the Tucson planning documents that promoted urban renewal, consisted of attached rowhouses that enclosed a central open space. The American idea calls for the building to be an object occupying the middle of the space: a house with a lawn.

You can still see early examples of that cultural collision in such neighborhoods as Barrio Historico and Armory Park; the book outlines some 14 tour itineraries. Tucson houses in the mid-1850s were in the Mexican model, built in response to desert geography. Constructed of local materials, primarily adobe, they had thick walls and high ceilings that tempered the extreme climate; a central zaguan, or breezeway, drew air through the house. The arrival of the railroad in 1880 allowed the town's burgeoning Anglo population to import materials for houses in styles familiar from back East; Armory Park, for instance, is full of brick Queen Anne Style houses with pitched roofs and wooden floors.

Sometimes a single building, such as the wonderful El Presidio Bed and Breakfast, encapsulates the transition from Mexican to American. "Beneath the 1899 Victorian dress of this building is a traditional Sonoran row house built of thick adobe walls and a flat roof," the authors write. Tarted up with a pitched roof, front porch and wood trim, this hybrid even has, incongruously in landlocked Tucson, a widow's walk. But as Nequette explained in the lecture, this fine old place has an effective passive cooling system: A slatted wooden floor draws up cool air from the basement, and vents in the attic shoot hot air through the roof.

This long-awaited book will become the indispensable guide to Tucson architecture. More photos would have been nice. But the authors have provided a useful primer of important local architects and have meticulously cataloged the sweep of changing building forms, from Hohokam to Mexican to Victorian to Spanish Colonial Revival to modernist to today's plague of Taco Deco, a phony style of pink-tile roofs and Alamo façades that has no relation to Tucson's history. And the authors, both of whom are affiliated with the UA School of Architecture, are unafraid to skewer disastrous mistakes. How satisfying to find these respected authors saying out loud that the Tucson Museum of Art is an example of "Brutalist" architecture, and that glass boxes like the Transamerica tower are more monuments to the old days of cheap energy than they are sensitive responses to climate.

But they don't adhere to an anti-modernist brief. Jeffery, who coordinates the UA's preservation studies program, has become an articulate public advocate for preserving the best of the city's modernist buildings. He's worried about the tendency to replace them with the phony, generic, easily marketable "Southwest style" seen everywhere from the El Con Home Depot to the latest home development of pink houses.

Instead the authors plead for sensible architectural design and for intelligent urban planning that renews the city's sense of place.

"For Tucson to preserve the natural beauty that still remains, its inhabitants must abandon their frontier attitude and declare Tucson an urban city," they write. "The city must have a stronger sense of center, become denser, develop efficient transportation systems, create vibrant open spaces an invest in good public architecture."

But the city shows little inclination to heed this sound advice. The frontier guys and gals who run this town, the developers and car dealers and their pals in city government, opened the 21st century with a disastrous transportation tax plan that's just one more old-style gallop toward the edges. Unimpeded by all we've learned in the last 50 years about urban design, they plan to obliterate vibrant mid-city neighborhoods like Grant and Campbell with 1950s-style freeway interchanges. Ever eager to settle virgin territory, they want to widen roads to hurry the rush to the town's distant frontiers. Like Tucson's movers and shakers ever since this town began, they blithely plan to run over the city's past in their pell-mell rush toward its future.

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