Richard Nilsen/The Arizona Republic The hundreds of eyebrow windows on the Wyndham Phoenix hotel, which opened as the Hotel Adams in 1975, display the quirky design enthusiasm of its era.
Buildings are built from steel and concrete and glass, but also from ideas.
They wear those ideas the way we wear clothes, and like fashion, architecture changes.
If you want to understand how, you need to watch how culture changes, for buildings reflect culture. It's all of a piece.
You can see the process, for instance, in windows. The eyes are windows to the soul, Shakespeare said.
And in architecture, perhaps that is just as true of windows, which are the eyes of buildings.
Take the Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center on McDowell Road, or the Wyndham Phoenix hotel on Adams Street. Both have unusual windows.
Architect Doug Sydnor calls the Wyndham the "world's largest cheese grater."
Those eyebrow windows, or the portholes at Good Sam, are the architectural equivalent of bell-bottom trousers and Nehru jackets. You can tell the age of a building by looking at its windows. As you drive through town, you can guess the ages of the buildings you pass; it's a kind of game.
Compare the Wyndham Phoenix, from 1975, with Tower One at the Arizona Center, which opened in 1989. The one has a hundred Argus-like eyes, each with an eyebrow, while the other wears formal bands of dark glass, looking like a Hollywood star hiding behind sunglasses.
The Wyndham Phoenix was built as the Hotel Adams in 1975, the year Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a follower of jailed cult leader Charles Manson, attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was released in movie theaters.
Arizona Center opened in 1989, as eight years of Reaganism morphed into four years of George H.W. Bush and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" downsized movie expectations.
It's hardly surprising that the buildings constructed during those two eras should scream their differences.
The cultural pendulum swings back and forth: conformity and artifice on one hand balance idiosyncrasy and organicism.
The exuberance of the Art Deco 1920s and '30s gave way to a more "just-the-facts" 1950s to a new exuberance of the hippie and disco eras to a new conformity during the '80s and '90s.
Now, the windows have changed again: Our newest offices and high-rises tend to have articulated detail on the windows -- balconies, shades, even just sticks poking out. From the smooth corporate coolness to a delight in texture and detail.
"Starting in the '80s, Phoenix high-rises fell into a me-too pattern of corporate banality," says Reed Kroloff, former architecture critic for The Arizona Republic and former editor of Architecture magazine, now director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.
"You couldn't tell a building in Phoenix from a building anywhere else in the country. You just slathered it in high-dollar, high-finish stone, often granite, and reflecting glass stripped in-between.
"It was supposed to look dressy and elegant, and what it looked like instead was distant and cold."
You can see these buildings all over the Valley, but especially in concentration along Central Avenue in Phoenix. The smooth horizontal bands of alternating stone and glass are the de-rigueur business suit of corporate architecture.
That same conformity shows up in residential architecture, as the 1980s marked the incoming tide of red-tile roofs.
"The quantity is staggering -- billions of pieces, stretching in an almost uniform field for as far as the eye can see," Kroloff wrote in a 1993 Republic critique.
"In a nation born of the search for individual expression, why do we accept uniformity?"
As the Valley has filled in, the residential architectural changes form bands like ripples circling out from the center.
"So, you have that red tile down to Baseline Road," says Valley lawyer and architectural commentator Grady Gammage Jr. "And then, they decide there is too much beige stucco and red tile, so they go for something more Postmodern and you get the Michael Graves look, orange and different shades of pink.
"And that dated real fast, and by the time you get to Elliot Road, everything was hypermodern with tilt slabs and a gray band on the top.
And now, it's shifted again, and you see lots of rough stone veneer.
"I hate that stuff," Gammage says. "Phony stone. When they put it in the midst of cheesy Tuscan palazzo buildings and cover arbitrary bits of it in piles of slate, so it doesn't turn the corner, or it stops and floats 18-inches above the ground, it's so bad."
When it seems that even every Panda Express has to have a natural-stone veneer, it may have gone too far. It has again become a version of conformity.
That would not have been a question during the so-called Eisenhower years, with the man in the gray flannel suit. That was the age of the nose-cone bra and the Brylcreem hair, the button-down collar and Irving Penn photographs in Vogue.
What followed was the braless look, long hair, psychedelic posters and the fashion photographs of William Klein.
It's a version of Nietzsche's eternal recurrence, as macassar oil turns to brilliantine and eventually becomes hair gel and mousse.
But just as the organic '60s (and early '70s) took over from the formality and artifice of the Eisenhower years (compare Janis Joplin with Patti Page, and you see the same thing), so the pendulum swings back and we mistrust the organic and feel comfortable with a certain reassuring formality.
Think of the "Punchcard Building," the Phoenix Financial Center tower at 3443 N. Central Ave., with its squinty vertical windows. It was built in 1964, in an era that valued eccentricity.
Then look down the street at the recent Xerox Building and recognize the corporate conformity enforced by its regimented windows.
Compare, for instance, the peculiar office building at 3660 N. Third St., built up on stilts, and punctuated with random trapezoids for windows. Many have passed the building and noticed it, wondering what could possibly be inside.
The building was built in 1972, when its architect inserted the odd Plexiglas windows and added a Whole Earth cooling and heating system (which has since been replaced with more conventional systems).
Now look at the former Compass Bank building at 302 N. First Ave. (originally the Citibank Building, from 1989). It is wearing tux and tie. Its windows are nearly perfect squares. The regularity of its windows and the freaky irregularity of the trapezoids are not merely choices that their architects made, but reflections of the prevailing philosophies of their times.
Something did change in the mid-'90s. A wider civic awareness of architecture followed on Will Bruder's design for the Burton Barr Central Library. It was hardly the only innovative design of the time, but when the building opened in 1995, it raised the public's level of awareness of architecture in Phoenix. It was the lightning rod.
Since then, a surprising number of interesting buildings and innovative local architects have populated the Valley.
"In the late '80s and early '90s, I could count good architecture on one hand," Kroloff says. "Now, I'd need extra hands.
"Any number of architects are doing substantial work in Phoenix, and the number keeps growing."
But it's not all good news.
"For every Burton Barr Library, there are 10 auto dealerships, maybe 20," he says. "Like Bell Road. It's a needless string that ranges from anonymous to hideous.
"From the 1980s, there has been a steady process of maturation and sophistication. We have gotten better buildings in that time frame, but the general run of architecture that gets built has gotten worse, not better, because the vast majority of what gets built in Phoenix is commercial and retail -- low-quality strip malls, warehouses, hospitals and low-scale light-industrial buildings.
"Only a handful of those buildings are any good."
The Valley has always suffered from an inferiority complex, says architect Sydnor.
"But the quality of the work in recent decades has been improving year by year, by a number of talented architects, and they are setting the bar higher and higher, and the world is beginning to take notice.
"So, I think the next 20 years are going to be very exciting for the Phoenix area."
POSTMORDERN NOW, 1980-2011
Our architecture reflects the ever-changing imprint of history
Windows of time
Windows in Time
by Richard Nilsen The Arizona Republic Oct. 8, 2011 02:13 PM
Windows of time