Land Mind

Urban Planner Jane Weinzapfel Says We Must Remember Our Connections To The Desert.
By Mari Wadsworth

PHOENIX IS EXPANDING into the desert at the rate of one acre per hour. That alarming fact was the subject of a 1995 cover story in Newsweek called "Bye-Bye, Suburban Dream," about the adverse impact of suburban sprawl on the quality of life, particularly in western cities like Phoenix where growth has been sudden and largely unplanned. Since World War II, Phoenix has been transformed from a desert town of 100,000 people to the eighth largest city in the country, with a population upwards of 2 million. The article, by Jerry Adler, goes on to quote ASU Urban Design Program Director Michael Fifield as saying, "Excluding federal land, the only thing standing in the way of Phoenix's swallowing the rest of the state is Tucson."

So saying, the debate over Tucson's future holds high stakes not only for local residents, but for the entire state. Tucson's transition from small town to big city can likewise be traced to the post-war boom; but unlike other edge cities, Tucson's urbanization has a long history steeped in resistance to growth, a resistance which, as the recent election shows, rages on today. Local author Michael F. Logan chronicles the complicated relationship between pro- and anti-growth advocates in Fighting Sprawl and City Hall, which places Tucson's development firmly in the context of a city where urbanization proceeded in the face of constant protest. "As early as 1904," he writes, "Tucson businessmen were pushing for unbridled growth through the Chamber of Commerce." Not much has changed in 1996.

Into this local debate steps one of the nation's most prominent urban planners, Jane Weinzapfel, who visits Tucson as one keynote speaker for Architecture Week, a community-oriented series of events sponsored by the American Institute of Architects Southern Arizona chapter. The series, which has included walking tours, workshops, lectures and a job fair, closes this weekend; but Weinzapfel will stay on to teach a three-week design studio for upper division UA architecture students.

A 1966 graduate of the UA architecture school, Weinzapfel has gone on to teach architectural design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in addition to founding her own Boston-based practice with partner Andrea Leers.

Weinzapfel's is a welcome voice of reason in a city undergoing an architectural identity crisis. Not only does she specialize in transportation and urban design issues, she's a native Tucsonan sensitive to the unique fragility of the desert. She describes her approach to urban design as that of being "a good neighbor."

"In urban places, what is built needs to be respectful of the surrounding setting--its density, scale, color, texture," she says. "So it's kind of being a good neighbor, seeing the architecture as an individual citizen. (Architecture) also has its own voice, its own thoughts...and speaks.

"Tucson, because it has a very rugged but delicate landscape, has a special condition. In terms of sensitivity, and being a good neighbor, one needs to first have a kind of respect for that land and landscape."

She believes respect entails not only thoughtful design, but thoughtful use. "There are, of course, the obvious things that seem to not respect that, when the hillsides or tops of peaks are used for individual residences or that sort of thing; it detracts from everybody's connection then, because it's an interruption of the natural landscape. There are a few exceptions which I think are positive and quite interesting, as in the case of Kitt Peak, the solar observatory, which is quite elegant and beautiful. It has a vertical tower, and then an angled shaft aimed to the sun, and it's all white. It has a very pure geometry. And it becomes an object, but a very beautiful one; and it's one that's of communal use. It isn't an individual that's doing that. When you look at it you can identify with it and say, 'We as a culture are endeavoring to explore the heavens,' and so you become part of it, and it's a connection with the earth and sky. It's about respect and use--when is something communal and when is it private. San Xavier del Bac is another one where you can see it for some distance. It's a marker on the landscape, the way Kitt Peak is; but again, it's a communal marker, it's a center there."

Her main goal, both as educator and architect, is to preserve (or reassert) our connection with the land, and in so doing, with our city. Just as our buildings reflect the values and symbols of our community, so too, in the West, do open spaces, Weinzapfel explains, "where people can be connected even from the outside. Together those build up places, where people feel they've arrived, where they feel a part of their city, part of their neighborhood."

With regard to Tucson, she expresses optimism that respect is already in place. "You notice individuals who've taken a great deal of care and attention with their personal landscape, with plantings that work well with the desert...people who seem to take pride in that kind of care and attention for making something beautiful in their immediate surroundings, using something that is part of nature, or maybe enhances nature. It's sustainable, shows care and attention and is quite beautiful. I'm always struck by that care and attention."

The crux of urban planning is our fundamental need for this connection, even if we don't recognize we need it. If we are to maintain our quality of life, we, the non-architects, also need to rethink why our cities look the way they do. Many balk at the notion of density (the obvious alternative to sprawl), but when asked if they want to be near restaurants, schools and other urban conveniences, the response is quite different.

Weinzapfel agrees, saying, "It's okay if they don't know that they need it, as long as others do know. But best is if people are conscious and aware that for their own sense of well being--and that of their community--there's a sense of cohesion. That way there's more respect for the physical landscape and the social grouping. Just putting people who're unconscious in a beautiful setting isn't necessarily going to make them behave better. But if they participate in it and think about it, then yes, architecture can have that impact."

Jane Weinzapfel discusses urban planning for the future, with reference to her firm's widely published, award-winning projects, in a free slide lecture at noon Friday, November 15, in the UA Center for Creative Photography auditorium. Call 621-6751 for information. AIA Architecture Week continues through November 16, with a free career day for kids from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Big Brothers, Big Sisters, 160 E. Alameda St. Event hosts professionals from 20 architectural and related jobs, and a Tinker Toy building contest. Call Jennifer Shapiro at 624-2447 for information. TW

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