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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

March 2007 Issue

Mesa, Martha, and the MAC
This Arizona arts complex is a triumph of designed form in a bland suburban context. But where are the users who were supposed to enjoy its outdoor spaces?

By Michael Bruce Dollin, ASLA

Mesa, Martha, and the MAC Timothy Hursley/ The Arkansas Office

Mesa, Arizona, may be the largest city in America that you’ve never heard of. With a population of more than 450,000 and growing, Mesa, joined at the hip with the sprawl of metropolitan Phoenix, is probably best characterized by stucco subdivisions and a profound abhorrence of taxes. Voters there recently rejected its first-ever property tax, despite dire warnings of the rejection’s impact on essential community services, so it’s extraordinary that this profoundly suburban city defied conventional wisdom and funded one of the edgiest arts complexes in the Southwest.

Mesa is modest in scale and character. Several churches, a city administration building, and a few commercial buildings provide the only significant downtown context, which bleeds off into surface parking and vacant lots. Originally settled by Mormons, Mesa incorporates streets wide enough to turn a 20-mule team, and formal grounds surround the Arizona Temple. In this modest context, a group of community leaders gently nudged the town toward the funding, design, and construction of the new Mesa Arts Center (MAC).

 

“I don’t know of any other community that I have worked with that was so visionary,” said Martha Schwartz, ASLA, recently during a telephone interview from her London office about her largest completed project to date. “Visionary” is not something one is accustomed to hearing about Mesa, yet this paradox of progressive expression in the desert is a real phenomenon in Arizona, where Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West and Palo Solari’s Cosanti coexist with the dominant bland development pattern.

With funding in place from the 1998 quality-of-life tax fund, Mesa began its search for the best design team. A selection committee narrowed the field to five finalists and then visited project sites designed by each of them. One observation the committee made, recounted Gerry Fathauer, now executive director of the MAC, was that landscape was overlooked in many of the projects on the tour. “That was not going to happen in Mesa,” says Fathauer. “If anything, the design would be focused on the idea of the arts center as a landscape, not simply a building.”

The selection committee chose the design team with the strongest understanding of the site and program opportunities. The winning team was formed by DWL Architects of Phoenix. DWL brought in BOORA Architects of Portland, Oregon, who suggested the inclusion of Schwartz. She was designated lead designer for the site, while Design Workshop acted as executive landscape architects. Together, they worked collaboratively through about a dozen schemes to arrive at the final design solution.

Members of the team were fascinated with the quality of light and shadow in Arizona. The intense sunlight must have seemed like a rare form of energy to design firms from Portland, Boston, and London. They wanted the site and the facilities to be vibrant with a flow of pedestrians migrating through a village of arts—past the performance hall, the kiln, the welders’ yard, and the exhibit gallery, up to the classrooms, and down the canyon to the sculpture garden and waterfall. The center’s operational program is contained in a backdrop of layered form, a composition of buildings, courtyards, plazas, fountains, shade structures, gardens, and edges. The seven-acre site acts as an oasis, a respite from the cultural void in this growing city.

A 700-foot-long “shadow walk,” a richly appointed pedestrian corridor, forms the spine of the complex. In a sweeping arc, the plaza becomes an arroyo of stone and water ascending in terraces of light and sculpture. Nearer to the building, sails form canopies. Palms, cypresses, mesquites, and other trees are aligned in soldier course, reinforcing the arc of the shadow walk and the formalist design approach.

Public artists Ned Kahn, Catherine Widgery, and Beth Galston contributed art inspired by natural forms and processes. Kahn’s Fragmented Landscape, a series of perforated aluminum panels of transposed Ansel Adams photographs of sand dunes, hangs as a shade screen over glass walls, shading the western exposure of the performance hall. Widgery’s Light Storm, a series of 30,000 stainless steel discs embedded in pavement and migrating up walls, appears to be quicksilver drops of an arid desert rain. Galston constructed colorful translucent panels that function as railings on terraces between the buildings. Sculptures by other artists create an informal sculpture garden.

Martha Schwartz is as much a public artist as a landscape architect. Using crushed glass mulch in blue, red, green, and yellow, cast concrete, woven metal, and stone, she created a landscape that is eclectic and playful. Asked if she was playing the role of public artist as well as landscape architect, Schwartz responded, “I don’t make the distinction. It’s impossible to say this is public art and this is landscape architecture or architecture. I mean, what’s the point of making the distinction anyway?”

With a handsome budget for materials, around $10 million for landscape architecture according to Mesa’s project engineer, a profusion of surfaces and patterns weaves throughout the site. A constructed arroyo within the shadow walk slashes the complex of buildings, organizing the pedestrian way under sails of shade fabric and along stone gutters traversed by flowing water. In another location, a waist-high water table offers a touch of cool water for the fingertips and a delight for the eyes. Water pours out of a spillway on the corner of Main and Center, beckoning passersby to notice the oasis environment. The use of water in this public space may be considered wasteful by some, but celebrating water in civic places appears to have had a high value for the decision makers at the MAC. But one fountain element designed by Martha Schwartz, an interactive rain cloud feature at the source of the arroyo, was value engineered out after its estimated cost rose above $1 million. A large utilitarian vault remains instead, giving this part of the project an unfinished look.

Holding the line between elegance and pop art may have been a challenge on such an ambitious project. The place teeters on the edge of trickiness. Way finding is no easy task—distractions abound. The environmental graphics, while elegant in execution, fall short of effectively guiding the user through the complex. It’s a challenge to understand where the front or center of the MAC is located.

The project is a departure from prevailing landscape design in the arid Southwest, where regionalism dominates landscape architecture thinking. It is fresh in that regard and a welcome alternative. The Mesa Arts Center project interprets the urban desert city as a twenty-first-century art form.

When asked if she had any regrets, Schwartz responded, “I only wish that the city had completed the sculpture of the rain cloud at the source of the arroyo waterfall.” The utilitarian solution put in the rain cloud’s place does leave the impression that the symbolic arroyo begins with a storm drain rather than a sculpture. “I hope they will complete it,” Schwartz added. “Other than that, it was a dream project. In the end, what really mattered was whether people like it and use it.”

But do people use it? Despite the design intentions, the realization of a vibrant pedestrian oasis remains to be seen. On any given day, the volume of pedestrians is a mere trickle. Except when events are scheduled, it is not unusual to see the outdoor space completely devoid of people. At times, the MAC feels like a postmodern ghost town. In fairness, this probably has a lot to do with Mesa itself and the lack of surrounding density. But the design may be partly to blame. In fact, the most difficult part of the MAC is that plants and people are subservient to form. Shade sails, for example, seem to be located in odd places that are more about design form than providing shade for users.

Keeping plants healthy in this context of art and rigid form has also been a challenge. Specimen plants such as a rare boojum tree planted in a sculptural but unsuitable raised concrete planter promptly expired. Densely planted mesquite trees along the building frontage are exploding, and with their canopies immediately adjacent to the shade structures and glass walls of the buildings, they will require severe pruning or eventual removal. Pine and cypress trees, planted in four-foot cutouts of hot, suffocating pavement, were stressed and declining not long after installation. Palm trees add a sculptural skyline element and appear to be doing a bit better under these urban conditions, but they don’t provide much shade. These problems might have been avoided with a little more sensitivity to urban ecological factors in the desert Southwest.

The MAC is a significant accomplishment and a fine place to visit. It is also a departure from the arid cultural context in which it resides. How well it stands the test of time remains to be seen.

Michael Bruce Dollin, ASLA, is a principal at Urban Earth Design in Phoenix and assistant clinical professor at Arizona State University’s College of Design.

Project Credits  Design architect: BOORA Architects, Portland, Oregon. Landscape architect: Martha Schwartz Partners, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Theater consultant: Auerbach Pollock Friedlander, San Francisco. Acoustical consultant: McKay Conant Brook, Westlake Village, California. Lighting: Auerbach Glasow, San Francisco. Executive architect: DWL Architects + Planners, Phoenix. Landscape architect of record: Design Workshop, Tempe, Arizona. Construction manager: Kitchell Capital Expenditure Managers, Phoenix. General contractor: Layton Southwest, Phoenix. Structural engineer: Paragon Structural Design, Phoenix. Cost consultant: Davis Langdon, Santa Monica, California. Mechanical engineer: Lowry–Sorenson–Wilcoxson Engineers Inc., Phoenix. Civil engineer: CMX Group Inc., Phoenix. Signage consultant: Thinking Caps Inc., Phoenix. Artists: Ned Kahn, Sebastopol, California; Beth Galston, Boston; Catherine Widgery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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