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Finding the There There
For the Phoenix area, a plan to bring out the best in a postindustrial landscape.
By Allen Freeman

We know Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale as an endless ooze of strip malls, subdivisions, and gated communities. But if you look a little deeper and keep an open mind about cultural landscapes, you'll find interesting pockets in these 645 square miles of Sonoran Desert. Consider, for instance, the traces of irrigation canals built by the Hohokam, who arrived here in the first century a.d. and mysteriously disappeared in the fifteenth. And consider the roughly 130 miles of contemporary concrete-lined canals that divert water from the Colorado River in northern Arizona for irrigation, drinking, and generating the electricity that, along with affordable automobiles and cheap gas, has fed the Salt River Valley's building boom over the past 50 years. Canals are the backbone on which the valley has supported human habitation for nearly two centuries. To adapt what Gertrude Stein said about her native city of Oakland, California, the Phoenix area canals are the there there.

Courtesy Studio MA
Courtesy Studio MA

If a small, 11-year-old, Phoenix-based nonprofit, the Papago Salado, has its way, an 11-mile trail will form a loop along the paths of four twentieth-century canals through portions of Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale. Although it's a modest concept for a relatively small, defined area within the broad swath of Phoenix sprawl, the loop will address shortcomings of America's archetypal urban landscape developed in the postindustrial era and give Phoenix and vicinity a more positive identity and more places for people to walk (see "Creating a 'There' There," April 2002). The area encompassed by the loop includes public parks, notably the large Papago Park with towering rock formations, and public golf courses, greenbelts, and lagoons. The large loop and smaller loops within link historic and prehistoric cultural landmarks, including the Pueblo Grande Museum, located on 1,500-year-old Hohokam village ruins. The system of trails will traverse suburban districts and industrial sections and put electric power infrastructure on view.

Last spring, the Papago Salado Association—Papago is the name sixteenth-century Spanish explorers gave natives in the region, and salado is Spanish for salty—held an ambitious competition to select a design team to master plan the trail. Largely underwritten by the National Endowment for the Arts, the competition awarded a total of $85,000 in prizes. From 46 initial responses to a nationwide call for submissions, four teams were selected and awarded funds to develop detailed proposals.

In the end, the competition jurors selected a submission called "Portals + Loops," produced by a team whose leaders are a pair of Phoenix-based architects, Christopher Alt and Dan Hoffman, assisted by Maine-based landscape architect Michael Boucher, ASLA. The other finalist teams were Singer/el dorado, led by sculptor and landscape artist Michael Singer and David Dowell of el dorado inc; Olin Partnership/Rick Joy Architects led by Susan K. Weiler, ASLA; and StoSS landscape urbanism/Office dA/James Carpenter, led by Chris Reed, ASLA. The Papago Salado Association retains rights to the content in all four finalists' submissions.

Ron McCoy, the competition's adviser and the director of Arizona State University's Architecture School, says that Portals + Loops most impressed the jury because its design combined "a subtle beauty with a realistic implementation strategy." An implementation plan is especially important because the trail requires financial commitments from three municipalities and a quasi-public utility, the Salt River Project, which manages the canals for the Bureau of Reclamation, an agency of the U.S. Interior Department. Portals + Loops, McCoy says, was precise and intelligent, compelling and feasible. Ultimately, the jury was convinced that this team demonstrated "the greatest knowledge of the trail," he says.

"The fact that the canals are here is in itself quite remarkable," says Hoffman. "Forget about adding any particular amenities; just being able to ride a bicycle or walk unimpeded around this loop would be a major achievement. Early on, the Papago Salado Association envisioned a trail, and a trail can lead anywhere. The competition brief showed the canals, but also other passageways and potential passages. The brief didn't say the trail should be a loop. We said, call it a loop and make it a loop."

"You could never get lost if you identify the loop and know how to get on it," Alt adds. The loop will follow the Arizona Canal on the north side, the Grand Canal on the south, the Old Cross Cut Canal on the west, and the New Cross Cut Canal on the east, all twentieth-century constructions. Access roads, usually 20 feet or more in width, flank the canals, frequently in pairs. They enable workers to dredge and clean the waterways. The loop will follow along the service roads, "but there are many breaks in the trail" because the service roads are to be its route, says Alt. "Our greatest challenge was to connect the broken links." A segment of the Old Cross Cut Canal, for instance, is a 20-foot-deep open culvert with perpendicular sides. Where a service road is fenced off along a segment of a mile or so, the team proposes suspending the trail between the parallel walls of the canal near ground level, in effect capping the open culvert.

"The first canals [built by nonnatives] were unlined, open ditches, and very large trees grew up along them," Alt explains. "The canals were shaded and pleasant to walk along. Then the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided that the trees were robbing the canals of water, so they cut down the trees, lined the canals with concrete, and created the Salt River Project to manage the system. For a time the public was barred from access, probably in part because people were doing things like water skiing along the canals behind trucks. But in the past 20 years the Salt River Project has allowed people back, and the public has taken an interest in making the canals a public amenity."

Unlike unused railroad beds that communities around the country have made into trails, the canals are working utilities. "Our goal was never to make something that is absolutely pretty, to pretend that this is a park," Alt says. "We're not pushing the cities to bury the power lines along the Grand Canal, for instance. They'll remain aboveground for many generations."

"For us, it always came down to the canals themselves," says Hoffman. "If we could get people onto the canals, they are interesting enough to make the place."

The portals in Portals + Loops are six trail entrances, or trailheads, positioned at the four trail intersections, or corners of the loop, and along the east and west segments. Each portal will be prominently marked on the desert landscape by a cooling tower, whose primary function will be to provide places for pedestrians to cool down from the desert heat. Each will be wrapped in a distinctive perforated screen inspired by one of six varieties of cactus. The jurors predicted that the towers "could easily become landmarks within the region," McCoy reported at the conclusion of the competition.

Inside the cactus skins will stand open vertical cylinders; at the top of each, a ring of pipe will mist the air. As the moisture evaporates, the air at the top cools, creating convective currents at the base. On a 110-degree day, not uncommon in Phoenix, the temperature can be 85 degrees under one of these columns, Alt says. Evaporative cooling towers were featured at Expo '92 in Seville, Spain, and have attracted interest in the Middle East. But they haven't been used extensively in Phoenix, he continues, "although the climate here is pretty good for them, except for about a month in the summer during the monsoons when the air is already very moist" and therefore adding humidity for the sake of cooling is pointless.

New plantings around the cooling towers will extend the modified microclimates out a bit into the immediate surroundings where there will be interpretive exhibits. The exhibits and signs and the benches, light poles, and drinking fountains will come from a kit of standardized parts that will help unify the trail's appearance and give it identity.

During the year since winning the competition, Portals + Loops team members have received praise for their sensitivity to the climate, culture, and economic realities, but they've also met resistance to some particulars of their design. Part of the idea of suspending a trail over the Old Cross Cut Canal was to put grates in the surface of the trail to let out air to cool pedestrians and bikers. "Simple, we thought," says Alt. But the team has run into obstacles created by the Salt River Project's regulations and other bureaucratic constraints.

Making things happen is the job of Debbie Abele, the executive director of the Papago Salado Association, who works to balance a project suspended among three municipalities that don't always see eye to eye and an agency of the federal government represented by the Salt River Project. "Our cities [Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale] are known for their squabbles," she says, "and the Salt River Project acts as a public agency when it wants to be and as a private one when it wants to be."

"Twenty years, eleven miles, three cities, one vision" is the Papago Trail catchphrase. "We're going to be working on the trail longer than we hoped because of the economy," she says. "The cities are cutting staff. But when things turn around, we'll be ready to go."

Portals + Loops landscape architect Michael Boucher is the team member Hoffman and Alt credit with helping to keep the proposal simple and on target. "Whenever we became too exuberant with our proposals, Michael would say to hold back, to make minimal impact with the work," Hoffman says.

Speaking from Freeport, Maine, where he practices, Boucher explains why he thinks the jurors selected Portals + Loops, based on a jury interview with the team at the end of its presentation. "One of the goals of the National Endowment for the Arts was to persuade people who entered the competition to move outside the normal boundaries of practice," he says. "Our proposal was not a typical beautification project. We focused on the fact that there is beauty in utility. A lot of this trail, in fact, already exists. The purpose of the design, in my mind, is to make people aware of the existence of the trails, not to create a parks-and-rec 'landscaped' condition."

The jurors also liked the team's direct response to the competition program and the fact that the approach is economical to implement. Asked if he brings a New Englander's sense of economy to design in the desert, Boucher says he learned about designing for the desert beginning in about 1994 when he started working with some of the best modern architects in the country, including Will Bruder of Phoenix and Tucson-based Rick Joy.

"My ethic about the desert comes from an entirely different viewpoint than 'landscaping,'" he says. "What will be important about Portals + Loops when it is implemented is that people become aware of what the canals mean to the region. They make this place habitable. This water is essential here."

Project Credits
Portals + Loops:
Team leaders: Christopher Alt and Dan Hoffman.
Assistants: Christiana Moss, Jonah Busick, and Ryu Igekai.
Landscape architect: Michael Boucher, ASLA.
Graphic artists: BJ Krivanek, Joel Breaux, and Andrew Weed.
Environmental artist: Laurie Lundquist.
Historian/interpretive planner: Nancy Dallett.
Systems specialist: Harvey Bryan.
Consulting engineers: Entellus, Inc.
Papago Trail design competition jurors: Cheryl Barton, FASLA, San Francisco; Eddie Jones, Phoenix; Reed Kroloff, Washington, DC; Tom Leader, Berkeley, CA; Frederick Steiner, ASLA, Austin, TX; Deborah Whitehurst, Phoenix.


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