June 25, 2012

Preservation vs. Profit

by: Christina Noble


Today’s post is by contributing writer Christina Noble:

Today we are reminded that architecture is, paradoxically, a fragile art form… The preservation of the Gladys and David Wright house will be our touchstone, our acknowledgement that our history informs our future, our celebration of, and call for, excellence in our community.”  – Will Bruder, words intended for the Planning Commission hearing for the Gladys & David Wright house in peril of demolition, Bloomingrock.com

Phoenix is not known for its architectural heritage – the climate and the landscape are our most memorable features. Our city’s landmarks are the mountains that break the sprawling street grid: South Mountain, Camelback Mountain, Piestewa Peak and the Papagos. Even our most notable architecture – buildings such as Taliesen West and the Phoenix Central Library – have stories that reference and integrate the surrounding landscape. I began thinking about this when considering the recent battles over the possible demolition of the Gladys and David Wright House by Frank Lloyd Wright. The home illustrates Frank Lloyd Wright’s love for the desert making it integral to the architecture. The building is isolated from its neighbors so that it can frame expansive views of Camelback Mountain to the north and the citrus groves to the south. The curving block form both grows from the earth beneath and floats above it. It is a sculptural object intended to be seen and experienced three-dimensionally. Phoenix’s best architectural examples continue a tradition of integrating with the landscape and sculptural buildings that stand separate from their surroundings define Phoenix’s architectural character.

Phoenix came of age during the 50s and 60s when connecting with the landscape was a central focus of modern architectural design. Modern architecture was interested in blurring the line between a building and the spaciousness of its natural surroundings isolated from the impacts of the city. Consider the images you’ve seen of the Villa Savoy by Le Corbusier, the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe and Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Wright – they are all sculptures isolated in their natural surroundings.  Modernism pushed against the traditions of dense urban living in an effort to bring light, air and ease to a population that had had enough of the ailments and perils of city life. Frank Lloyd Wright himself advocated for Broadacre City, a development pattern where each household would have a one acre plot and “a new standard of space measurement—the man seated in his automobile.”  Phoenix is a descendant of this concept.

This is in stark contrast to historic urban buildings where a decorative façade faces a dense Main Street. Consider Whiskey Row in Prescott. Attention there is given to intricate details around the windows and doors as well as perhaps how the roofline touches the sky, but the volume and mass of the architecture are not critical. Architecture occurs in only one plane, facing the street. It is this tradition of development that also creates a dense street life. The cities we know and love – San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans and Paris all have dense street frontages that push more people into a small space, creating a lively urban environment.

Identity Crisis

Phoenix is now undergoing an identity crisis. Throughout most of our development the belief in a sprawling, auto-centric city as the best formula for planning has not been questioned. The pendulum is now swinging in the other direction as young graduates, creatives, and knowledge workers now desire a downtown lifestyle with access to public transportation, dense, mixed-use design, and a walkable urban core:

“For the first time in this country’s history, the majority of the population lives in cities. Leading this charge are the nation’s two fastest growing demographics: the baby boomers (born 1946-1964) and the millennials (born 1981-2000). The millennials, seeking work-life balance, short commutes and compact communities, wish to be near cultural, social and convenient amenities. They are looking for accessible education, recreation and cultural amenities; smaller workplaces with open spaces for creative interaction and meetings; close proximity to transit; and compact communities. In fact, the Orlando-based real estate advising firm RCLCO discovered that 88% of all millennials want to live in an urban area. CEOs for Cities reports that young adults with four-year degrees are 94% more likely to live in close-in urban neighborhoods than their less educated counterparts.” – Downtown Denver: A Magnet for the Future Workforce a report by the Downtown Denver Partnership, Inc.

Phoenix’s past and future are in tension and Phoenicians must consider the difficult questions:  What kind of city do we want to be?  How do we progress into the future while preserving our past?  How do we reconcile living in a city with an auto-centric heritage while embracing a future that allows us to build upon the past?

Often the two sides of the preservation debate are cast as opposing extremes: preservationists on the one hand who want everything to remain as-is without allowing the flexibility to adapt for the future versus developers who are often cast as considering only profits.  We must find a middle road between these two extremes where we can preserve our unique cultural heritage while also allowing growth and change.

Because Phoenicians are new to this tension we’re not quite sure how to grapple with it. The Gladys and David Wright House is a clear example of a historic landmark that we must cherish and preserve.  However, in saving it we will have to accept change that will impact its intended character. While the developer has agreed to preserve and save the home – they are even willing to accept landmark historical status – they will also not be leaving the entire site as-is. New homes will be constructed on the now spacious site, perhaps impacting critical sight lines to Camelback Mountain to the north. The Mayor’s office is leading a collaborative effort between architects and the developer to negotiate an acceptable solution for both the developers who own the Gladys and David Wright home and the community who hopes to preserve it.  Questions to consider will be:  Where do we draw the line between increased density and preserving critical features of the Gladys and David Wright house?  How much surrounding development is too much?  Is it possible to maintain a historically spacious site while also allowing the developer to find the profits he seeks?  Are profits necessarily at odds with preservation or just one of many signs that we need to evolve into the future?

As Will points out in his comments on the Gladys and David Wright House, architecture is a fragile art form.  Although we think of architecture as permanent and ever-present, this is not the case.  Our buildings adapt and change as we adapt and change. Phoenix must strive to keep and maintain its landmarks, but also evolve. Without change our city risks a switch from fragile to stale. It will be through the contrast of the old and the new and the development of new insertions that Phoenicians can create an interesting, unique, and beautiful city.  Much like European cities, we will develop layers that reveal who we are in each moment in time and what we value at this point in history. I hope that Phoenix can show that we value the great treasures of our past but that we’re also cultivating a vibrant and exciting future based on sustainability, vibrancy, and beauty.

Photo Credit: Photo of the David Wright House by J.R. Eyerman as found on paintingsoncanvas.net.

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7 Responses

  1. Haley Ritter says:

    WOW!!! Beautifully articulate expression of the timely tension between preservation of the Baby Boomers’ inspiration from and impact by the introduction of the automobile to our culture,and the desire of Millenials to get RID of them and/or at least STOP using oil to fuel them- a very practical and possible means!!! This is SUCH a fabulous article that EVERYONE in their 20s & 30s should read!!!!! Thank you, Taz!!!!

    • Taz Loomans says:

      I totally agree with you and thanks for your support Haley! But the thanks should go to our fabulous contributing writer Christina Noble 🙂

  2. Joan Baron says:

    Thank you Cristina for your over-view of Phoenix and her many challenges and opportunities. I am here in San Antonio; just took a long “river walk” which exemplifies what is possible when a city recognizes its valuable history. One can enter many parks and sites from the river walk or climb old stone stairways or cross short bridges up to the street level to explore historic buildings. Plenty of signage explains the historic relevance of site and architecture w/ pictures of before and after to give context. These corridors link downtown to all the surrounding neighborhoods and major cultural sites. Bike stations are available to rent by hour or day. Hotels and businesses learned the value of turning their “storefronts” to the river creating a much more suitable integration of site to activity. Patios abound for places to enjoy outdoor dining or just sitting and relaxing. They too have a history of challenges by bankers and developers wishing to move in on historic sites for their own profits. The city has re-invented the use of most historic sites and invested in maintaining them. As I continue to work on our own Arizona canal system committees I am inspired and more committed to this integration of site, architecture, art, history and experiential opportunities that are unique to our desert environment.

  3. Bill Brown says:

    I don’t get the presumption of the writer that she speaks for “young graduates, creatives, and knowledge workers.” Far too often she uses “we” as if she was the voice of Phoenicians. She does not represent my views.

    The answer to all of this is ownership and property rights. In Phoenix’s history, those two things were regarded as inviolate. (Or at least until tempered by some overriding public need through eminent domain.) So if someone wanted a historic property preserved for all time, that someone had to buy it. Otherwise, the owner could do what he pleased.

    Then the City of Phoenix started getting involved and buying historic properties for preservation purposes. Now it’s the city’s business and, by extension, the community’s. So we’ve got a situation where the Mayor is mediating between the property owner and those who have an opinion but no monetary stake.

    I’m a historian by training (as well as a thorough fan of Frank Lloyd Wright and his work), and feel it’s unfortunate that downtown wasn’t preserved in some sort of museum-quality stasis for my edification and entertainment. However, I understand that my feelings don’t trump people who have used their hard-earned money to realize their visions.

    If you wanted David Wright’s residence preserved for posterity, you should have been putting a bid on it and paying for its long-term upkeep–or joining with those of like mind to do the same. Instead, you let someone else spend the money to take possession and then ran off to your representatives to force him to do what you want. Dressing it up as historic preservation or sustainability doesn’t alter the underlying nature, nor does the fact that many others–similarly without a financial stake in the game–agree with you.

  4. Bill,

    I agree with you in some of your points but suspect that you and I just have very different world views on others. Unfortunately, I, like many others, did not become aware of the threat posed on the home until Taz blogged about the proposed lot split or the Arizona Republic reported it on their front page. Once in danger the community rallied around saving the home. It is unfortunate that it wasn’t until this moment in time that the community came together to try and save such an important part of our city’s architectural history. Why couldn’t this have happened sooner when the property was sitting for sale for so long? Why couldn’t we have been actively searching for a caring owner before 80|81 purchased the property? Sadly, these things don’t become news stories and don’t have the power to gather supporters until a crisis occurs.

    Where you and I fundamentally disagree, however, is in the ultimate power of the individual and the individual’s right to do whatever he or she pleases on his property. We as a community have agreed to live together and have agreed to numerous laws and regulations to assure that we can all benefit and thrive. When I build or modify my home, I have to abide by zoning and building standards that the City has established. If I live in a historic neighborhood, I have agreed to live in a place that values and wants to preserve the history and character the place. As a result, there are additional guidelines that I must follow and be sensitive toward. Additionally, we have all also agreed to various public systems that benefit us all: streets, water/sewer, fire safety, police protection and education. I believe in the benefits that all of these public services offer to me and my neighbors.

    I also believe that we have all been drawn to Phoenix because there is something that we love about this place. Why not preserve what makes us unique? Why can’t the common good be more important and more critical than the immediate desires of the individual? Some things are worth preserving so that I, my friends, neighbors and family can all have an opportunity to enjoy them now and into the future. The David Wright House is one of them.

  5. Bill Brown says:

    Why can’t the common good be more important and more critical than the immediate desires of the individual?

    In a nutshell, that is a summary of our differences in world view. Yours is the view that led to Socrates’ fate and countless other tales of mob rule throughout history. The “common good” isn’t good if you’re not part of the common. As far as tragedies go, this one’s pretty limited: the developer who bought that property knew that it was a historic Frank Lloyd Wright house, knew that it was within city limits, and knew that “concerned neighbors” might veto his claim of ownership. But repeat this over and over in city after city and those individuals negatively affected by the “common good” mount up significantly. They’re just diffuse and unorganized.

    Further, you dismiss the developer’s role as an “immediate desire” even though he did not whimsically buy that property. He would have had to put in a lot of time both earning that money and analyzing the returns on his vision. It was no small feat; the same of which cannot be said about the community that “rallied around saving the home.” They saw an article or blog entry and bellowed “This must not be allowed.” Which is more emotionally-based and irrational?

    As for the specific matter at hand, the David Wright house was never yours to enjoy. It was a private residence. Did you, your friends, neighbors, and family march in and demand that the owner allow you entrance? Naturally, no. I have actually wanted to visit that property for years and years but I never once thought that I should march on City Hall to gain access. Why? Because it was someone’s property–same reason you didn’t and wouldn’t if the current owner was just some rich guy who wanted to live there. Somehow, you and your ilk seem to believe that that fundamental fact disappears when that new owner is a company or wants to do something you don’t like.

    (I’m leaving aside your argument about zoning and public systems. As you probably suspect, I’m not sympathetic to it and there’s no sense in going around in circles about the proper nature of government and its relationship with the individual.)

  6. […] Originally Published Bloomingrock.com, Monday, June 25th, […]

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