Stephen Paul: Architectural missteps degrade downtown

2014-06-29T00:00:00Z Stephen Paul: Architectural missteps degrade downtownBy Stephen Paul Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Good architecture not only acknowledges its neighbors, but honors its surroundings. Developers in downtown Tucson have made some egregious errors recently, which we must not abide in the future unless we aspire to remain less than a first-class city.

Any new urban building is placed in a neighborhood of existing buildings, and it must be designed in ways that relate to that neighborhood — either through its form and mass, its style details, the rhythm and scale of its openings, its height, its set-back from the street, etc.

And a building’s exterior should evoke positive human emotion in the passers-by, imparting a sense of calm or allure or excitement. Good architects use well-known tools to make a building enticing to humans, as laid out decades ago by Christopher Alexander in his book “A Pattern Language: Towns, Building, Construction” (1977). These tools include human-scaled openings repeated in pleasing rhythm, elements of surprise or respite like a small pocket park, and views into areas of activity, like retail windows or even workspaces. A monolithic façade with little detail or nothing to evoke human interaction is a detriment to our urban experience.

The architects for the Public Service Center (formerly known as the Pima County Joint Courts Complex) at Stone and Toole avenues disregarded the historic El Presidio neighborhood in downtown’s north end and the Bates Mansion across the street, and created a blighted streetscape on Stone Avenue.

After a brilliant restoration by Pima County of the Roy Place Building at Stone Avenue and Pennington Street (the former Walgreens), the county — as developer of the courts complex — has committed a serious aesthetic infraction. If the county cites courthouse security needs as having dictated the design, that is no excuse for soulless architecture on a long block of our downtown.

And if you ever hear, “It will look better after the trees are planted,” your suspicions about the quality of the actual architecture are confirmed.

Likewise, the UniSource Energy Corp. headquarters building, 88 E. Broadway at Scott Avenue, while creating a passable facade on its Broadway face, similarly disrespects the bustling historic Odd Fellows’ Hall and Pueblo Hotel on its Sixth Avenue facade and also the unassuming but wonderful Udall Foundation building on Scott Avenue. Instead of designing in context and activating the street, UniSource (parent of Tucson Electric Power Co.) chose to ignore the human experience on two of its three facades when they could have been elevated.

It is the developer who makes the decisions on what a project will contribute to the community. The quality of his architect may range in degrees of talent, but the developer must be held accountable, as he is footing the bill for the built environment.

This is not to say developers need to design with historic references. Modern architecture can honor its neighbors and celebrate its place in a community of buildings. There are recent examples of thoughtful architecture downtown, including the very acceptable One East Broadway building. The Tucson Fire Station No. 1 on West Cushing Street and the still-nascent Mercado District’s walkable streetscapes and its courtyard shops and cafes all elevate our urban experience because the developers (the city of Tucson is one) have considered their context and the human emotion their buildings would evoke.

The best example of how a developer can bring life to a street is found on East Congress Street, where the developers of The Cadence student apartments and Plaza Centro parking garage created the most stimulating new one-block commercial area in Tucson through their choice of street-level urban planning and mix of dense residential, retail and restaurant uses. More of this type of “intentional connectivity” would inch Tucson closer to being considered a serious city.

Contrast these examples with the street-deadening county courts complex and the two secondary facades of the Unisource Building. Consider what we have lost by not considering human interest in those projects’ three city blocks. What meaning have the developers conveyed about us? What have they contributed to our sense of place, to our emotional experience?

Architecture that does not contribute to a positive urban experience says “We don’t care about our community.” In a recent New York Times column, Witold Rybczynski notes that, “Architecture, however, is a social art, … a reflection of a society and its values. …”

Developers have failed our city in these latter two cases. The city manager’s office should implement a Design Review Committee comprised of architects, developers and citizens in order to protect and further enhance our built environment.

With more development coming to downtown, thoughtful design is critical for the quality of city we’ll have in the future.

Stephen Paul is a downtown resident, businessman and property owner. Contact him at stephen@hamiltondistillers.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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