Fifty years from now, when all of our maladies have been genetically erased and drugs rendered redundant, you can imagine a 90-year old Dirk Arnold leading the charge to preserve Tucson's last Walgreens or CVS drugstore in Tucson.

For now, though, the ubiquitous Rx boxes and the proliferating bigger boxes of the Walmart chain are Arnold's enemies and the targets of his highly politicized art.

There is nothing overtly political in Arnold's shadow-box architectural models of Tucson buildings, but the title of his one-man show at the Temple Gallery - "Endangered Architecture" - proclaims the intent.

Artist statements for each piece pull no punches.

Witness the sardonic comment about the building that once housed little Café Poca Cosa, razed when renovations to the former federal courthouse next door required a buffer zone under new Homeland Security regulations: "We are all much safer now."

Of the Berkshire Village strip mall on East Broadway, he writes: "These Asian-inspired awnings have resisted renovation and covering up for years, but are about to succumb to the community's apparently desperate need for another Walmart."

Walmart also figures in another succession of buildings displayed in the show. The former Levy's department store at the west end of El Con is about to give way to one of the giant retailer's super stores.

Arnold likes the Levy's building but the show also includes a model of the El Conquistador hotel, which opened in 1928 and was demolished in 1968 - to make way for the mall expansion that included Levy's.

"Yes, the irony of it all," said Arnold in a recent interview. You can end up liking buildings that replace buildings you revere.

"The old El Con mall, if you took the time to stop and look at it, was actually quite beautiful," Arnold said.

He managed to snatch the brushed aluminum door handles of the mall's Montgomery Ward store as it was being torn down.

They are in his studio, along with letters from the Loft Cinema marquee and a Dunkin' Donuts sign.

In his side yard is the towering sign from Ye Olde Lantern restaurant.

He's glad he lives in the Dunbar-Spring Neighborhood, where folks tolerate such eccentricity.

Arnold came late to the art biz. He trained as an architect, graduating with a degree from Lawrence Technological Institute (now university) in Southfield, Michigan.

"By the time I was done, I wanted nothing to do with architecture," Arnold said.

He went into graphic design and still uses those skills in his day job as a Web-interface designer.

When he left Michigan in 1996, he went on a tour of places he thought he'd like to live and came to Tucson by way of Sun City in Phoenix, where his parents had retired.

He fell in love with the saguaros and with a streetscape that had embraced "all this 1960s and '70s new stuff."

He also fell back in love with the one part of his architectural training that hadn't seemed a chore - making models of buildings with balsa wood and matte board.

His show at the Temple Gallery, managed by Etherton Gallery, features 12 of those models - facades about 4 inches deep, encased in shadow-box frames.

Some, like the El Conquistador Hotel, have already vanished. Others have been adapted to new uses - like the Rainbo Bakery building on East Sixth Street, which Arnold has reproduced without the painted advertisements that currently adorn it. "It's such a beautiful art deco building and it's had a million weird tenants."

In a sense, Arnold is preserving an art form while documenting lost buildings and arguing for preservation of the threatened.

Today's architectural models are "virtual" computer creations and even the physical ones make use of laser-cutting and new materials. Arnold's old-school approach and traditional media fit his theme well.

You might already know Arnold's work from a sideline he began when he first started producing models of buildings.

Attracted to the signs that graced their facades, he began producing refrigerator magnets of the signs themselves, and then got involved in preserving those threatened icons of Tucson commerce. "Endangered Architecture" was born.

He ended up serving on a committee that drafted a law allowing owners of those historic signs to repair and refurbish them without running afoul of the city's sign code.

The City Council passed the new ordinance in June. This week, one of Arnold's favorite signs was taken down for its transformation - the diving girl that once advertised the Pueblo Hotel on South Sixth Avenue downtown, now converted to law offices.

Architect Chris Evans said Arnold's art could be a potent tool for preservation.

Evans, president of the Modern Architecture Preservation Project, said "I'm hoping he maybe gets to an audience we don't often reach."

Evans said it's instructive to see the buildings in their original intent, stripped of their modern additions and decorations.

"Maybe, if it's 'art,' people will think it worth preserving," Evans said.

If you go

Dirk Arnold's "Endangered Architecture"

• When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday at the Temple of Music and Art through April 3, or by appointment.

• Where: Temple Gallery, 330 South Scott Avenue, in the Temple of Music and Art.

• Information: Etherton Gallery, 624-7370.

• Talk: Arnold will speak on 4 p.m. Friday, March 30 at the Temple Gallery, in conjunction with publication of "Pueblo: A Guide to Tucson's Mid-Century Advertising."

Did you know?

Dirk Arnold has made his own contribution to Tucson's streetscape - a neon saguaro at the interchange of Oracle Road and Main and Drachman avenues.

The saguaro, designed by Arnold and built by Cook and Company Signmakers, says "Tucson" on one side and "Miracle Mile" on the other - a tribute to the street's former name, which vanished along with many of the strip's buildings and signs.

Contact Tom Beal at tombeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.