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Phoenix rising.

Central Avenue Phoenix is one of those immensely dreary six lane highways which make American cities so boring to most Europeans. Dead straight and flat it is the midline of the city grid, and stretches across the plain from suburb to suburb with relentless nineteenth-century rationalism and a tedious 40 mile an hour speed limit. In the middle, it has a moment of slight frisson with the few towers of the CBD (central business district) making a picturesque moment on the long drive north. And just beyond this, you come to a part of the avenue which plainly has some sort of civic presence, a place where the city is clearly trying to give itself a heart. First after the CBD is Will Bruder's Central Library (AR March 1996), with its huge striated copper saddle-bags emphasising the inviting stainless-steel curve of its entrance. Clearly this is a public building generously offering welcome. In a few seconds, you come to another on the same side of the street, also signalling entrance and civic presence with shining steel. The silver moment is posed between two long, grave, heavy and almost imperforate grey-green masses which, even at a daring 50 miles an hour, are articulated enough to be clearly more than just the normal dumb concrete that lines so many American urban thoroughfares outside the CBDs.

After a rather complicated manoeuvre, you can turn round, get back and park near the building. The concrete of the two wings that define the entrance and front Central Avenue is revealed to be in huge precast panels (the biggest size that could be put on a flat-bed delivery vehicle) and the aggregate turns out to be grey-green, a local calcite that is not normally used in such work, but which softly whispers in colour to the strange, almost mineral verdure of the Palo Verde trees that, to do the Phoenix authorities justice, line this part of Central and help make a carefully graded sequence of scales between the building and the road. The rhythm of the highway is thumped out by the tall palm trunks; then there comes the more delicate and bush-like row of Palo Verdes; then the building itself, with its scale and order given mainly by panel size but modulated by the insertion of events like a niche waiting for a sculpture at the north-west end, and strange glass slices protruding in the southern wing, casting sundial-like continuously changing half translucent shadows onto the impassive concrete. The two precast concrete facades stop bluntly against the sky, but slope gently to emphasise the entrance between them, carefully obeying and celebrating the city's rule that for drainage purposes all roofs must fall by 1/2 in to a foot (1:24). All this celebration of routine, the ordinary, and inexpensive technique (the panels are cast by a local firm used to making elements for heavy civil engineering projects) is intended to focus you on the entrance.

Here, celebration breaks out. It is like one of those wonderful moments in the second symphony of Sibelius, when the strings which have been muttering on, gravely establishing a deep rhythmic structure are called to attention by a piercing climax of trumpets. Here the climax is silver. A stainless steel bridge makes a portico between the two concrete wings. Beyond is the entrance, transparent and welcoming, clad in glass and stainless steel again.

From the entrance lobby, you can choose to turn either left, towards the changing exhibitions gallery, or right to the Great Hall. Both of these are big volumes, almost industrial in their simplicity. The Great Hall is the more memorable of the two (the other by definition is always being altered). The Hall is a place for social occasions as well as a gallery, and it acts as a rather grand foyer for the lecture theatre, above which is the contemporary art gallery, reached either by a grand flight of limestone stairs or by a ramp which turns out to be the reason for the dark bulge on the concrete elevation of the south wing. Another connection between Central Avenue and the interior is made by the vertical glass slices which enliven the exterior; these penetrate straight through the wall to bring in a greenly glowing memory of hot sunshine.

In contrast to the clarity of this big volume is the north wing, behind the changing exhibition space. Here on two floors is a continually surprising labyrinth of different spaces, each with particular qualities carefully adjusted to the particular nature of the exhibits they house. The largest is the Asian gallery, a maze within the labyrinth, in which the often gaudy sculptures and paintings are set off against calm figured wood and vermilion walls.

The new buildings are organised to complete a court, or rather a series of courts which engage with the existing museum, theatre and old central library designed in 1956 by Alden Dow. These are modest but quite dignified stucco buildings, made on a very low budget. They were originally surrounded by what the new architects call a 'doughnut of asphalt', making their civic impact almost negligible. The new wings on Central occupy what was previously a large part of the parking area, and they shield the court from the noise and pollution of the highway. In all their recent work at whatever scale, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien create a quiet heart, luminous with daylight. In the Neurosciences Institute at La Jolla, there is the Plaza, a great terrace contained under the sky by surrounding laboratories; in the New York house (p45), there is the generous tall volume that contains the stairs. In Phoenix, the court is a complex affair in plan, partly for historical reasons (here for once in America is an instance of a public space growing organically with old and new parts relating in a complex contingent relationship). It will be a major moment on the projected pedestrian north-south route which will connect all the city's central cultural buildings.

The place will be more dramatic and memorable if the money can be found to build the sculpture pavilion, which will be a smooth conical structure 94ft (29m) tall and 75ft in diameter. It will be rather like a cream-coloured Phrygian cap without the floppy bit at the top. To be fabricated of translucent fibreglass resin sections half an inch (12mm) thick and bolted together, it will make a huge luminous volume cooled by desert air which will pass through perforations halfway up and be mixed with a very fine water mist, becoming heavier and falling towards the ground in a continuous invisible cascade.

The proposed fibreglass construction of the sculpture pavilion is a telling example of the way in which Williams & Tsien understand materials and technique; it will be made with simple semi-industrial processes like these used to make boats. The concrete slabs of the Avenue side are equally the product of commonplace, inexpensive low-tech building technology, which has been ennobled by imagination. Similarly, ceilings and walls are often made from Tectum, a wood fibre material normally used in gyms; blackened concrete is used as floor finish, though some of the more intimate rooms have maple strips, and elsewhere, in the Great Hall for instance, floors are of Yukon Silver limestone, but the sort that is often thrown away because of its varied colouring (which actually makes it more interesting and sensuous than the blandly uniform kind). Subtlety and sensuousness imbue all parts with which you have intimate contact, like handrails and handles.

There is a deep sensibility at work here, which allows tectonic qualities to resonate with spatial ones, generating places which are memorable at very many levels of consciousness. Yet, for all its noble visual and tactile presence, this building cost no more than $100 a square foot ([pounds]700[m.sup.2]). Phoenix got itself a brilliant bargain.
COPYRIGHT 1997 EMAP Architecture
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Title Annotation:Phoenix, Arizona's Art Museum and theatre along Central Avenue Phoenix
Author:Seal, Margaret
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Nov 1, 1997
Words:1312
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