Urban Cowboys

A Posse Of Concerned Citizens Sets Out To Lasso Growth And Brand It With Environmental Design.

By Mari Wadsworth

ARCHITECTURE IN Tucson? The subject, when raised at all, seems to take the form of a question. In the 1950s, Life magazine branded our main thoroughfare "the ugliest road in America"; and although the face of the city has changed dramatically since, our collective impression doesn't seem to have improved.

And yet, people love Tucson. Not only have they been moving here by the thousands (an estimated 800,000 of us and growing), but city and county voters have consistently demonstrated their commitment to preserve open spaces and invest in infrastructure, even when it means going into debt. Between 1984 and 1997, four straight bond packages for infrastructure and preservation have passed, each bigger than the last, totaling billions of dollars for a full range of public works--roads, sewers, parks, historical preservation and public art.

What's more, we have a nationally reputed college of architecture, landscape design and planning on the UA campus, right in the middle of the city.

Currents The Southern Arizona Chapter of the American Institute of Architects estimates there are at least 450 registered architects in the greater Tucson area; and of some 125 firms, 70 are active AIA members, with projects constituting 80 percent of the construction dollars spent in Tucson. The yellow pages list 184 private practitioners and licensed firms in Tucson, advertising services in architecture, landscape design, and city and regional planning. So why isn't architectural design flourishing?

"There is something about this area," says retired UA architecture professor Kirby Lockard. "You see evidence of a lot of environmental activism. A lot of people really care about the desert and the natural environment. But you don't see any urban activists."

That's a niche he, and the fledgling environmental design advocacy group Civitas Sonoran, hope to fill.

The group, also known as the Environmental Design Council, was founded in spring of 1998 in cooperation with the recently expanded College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at the UA. Richard Eribes, Dean of the college, conceived the group as a means of community outreach. He called on architect Les Wallach (principal of the architectural design firm Line and Space) and Lockard to form a board of directors and solicit membership in the design professions. More than 100 licensed practitioners have joined so far.

While it's as yet an elite group, it's by no means elitist. The handpicked, 15-member board includes academics and professionals from all three disciplines; the majority of them have lived and worked in Tucson for decades. Their purpose is to foster an interdisciplinary approach to design and planning: to combine architecture, landscape and urban planning to create "architecture of its time and place," in Wallach's words.

In practical terms, that means architecture that responds to the needs of a growing, urban populace without unduly taxing the natural environment. It means getting beyond the no-growth vs. any growth polarization. And it means opening the planning and design process to critique and debate.

Their agenda, as yet undefined, could include issues as simple as retiming stoplights to accomodate pedestrians rather than cars, or as complex as a central city development plan so that urban projects aren't lost to remote sites, as happened with the Arizona International Campus and the new ballpark. It could even be as visionary as pioneering a "view protection ordinance" so that treasured public views--a vanishing urban species unto themselves--won't be obstructed by future development.

"Everything in our environment is designed," says Lockard. "It's just a matter of who it's designed for."

Unlike professional affiliations, membership in Civitas Sonoran is open to "anybody concerned about urban design issues." That includes developers, environmental activists, politicians, builders, students and neighborhood groups as well as design professionals. In other words, citizens who aren't necessarily used to being at the same table, let alone on the same side.

It's a heady proposition, but hardly a new one in the design community. The fact is, good design is flourshing in our region. And by way of demonstration, Civitas has assembled Sonoran Design of Its Time and Place: Determinants of Contemporary Environmental Design in the Sonoran Desert, a members' exhibit opening Friday, April 23, at the Tucson Museum of Art.

The exhibit defends the idea that good design is a necessity, not a luxury; these are the principles by which plants and animals have adapted and survived in the desert far longer than we have (i.e., responding to the special characteristics of a place with the innovative use of available materials). The goal is to shift thinking about architecture away from style and toward "determinants": in the desert, that includes light, color, shade, water and pattern.

The exhibit, which will continue through April 30 in the TMA lobby, includes 46 projects by 12 member firms. Color photographic images will be accompanied by narratives explaining each design's intention and effect. A two-phase exhibit this summer in Meliora Architectural Gallery, 178 E. Broadway, is in the works.

Civitas' broader goals are to increase public awareness and instill a discussion of ethics into the dialog about design and planning. Toward that end, the group formed an Issues subcommittee, chaired by architect James Gresham. Their first opportunity presented itself when Tucson City Manager Luis Gutierrez announced his plan for a new City Hall.

"At first it was presented like a done deal," recalls Lockard, "We need a new City Hall, and it will go here, on the grassy knoll next to the Main Library. But a 15-member committee was appointed by the city, and three of our group members were on that committee: Les, Bob Vint and David Duffy. The committee agreed there were some alternatives that should be looked at, and Les, because he was involved with Civitas Sonoran, suggested our group spend some time looking at the problem."

The resulting study rejected the original site entirely, and instead presented four alternatives. Civitas' presentation also recommended the city hire a professional architectural consultant to further research and develop alternatives, which they did. At a Civitas board meeting on
April 8, Wallach was optimistic on the outcome of the March 22 design review. While still in progress at that time, the revised plan by the IEF Group (the city's hired consultant) would offer at least two options for a responsive, creative scheme, one of which recommended the expansion of the existing City Hall, and redesign of the concrete-and-brick civic plaza.

Other projects on the horizon include analysis of a members survey ranking urban design issues, a home tour, and a catalog and exhibit this October of the work of Judith Chaffee, a rare female designer and longtime UA prof who died last year after a protracted battle with lung cancer. Six of her projects will be featured in the TMA exhibit.

Civitas has a long, paved but unchartered road ahead of it. But the most important thing they hope to build is community. As their literature states, "The future of our Sonoran environment depends on all of us."

Sonoran Design of Its Time and Place opens with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, April 23, at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave. Regular museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Museum admission is $2, free on Tuesdays. For more information call 624-2333.
For information on membership in Civitas Sonoran, the Environmental Design Council, call the UA College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at 621-6751. TW

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