Like so many other artists, Frank Lloyd Wright couldn't help but be seduced by blank space. In 1937 he opened an outpost of Taliesin—his busy studio and school in Wisconsin—in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, outside Phoenix. Within the splendid isolation of Taliesin West, Wright and his disciples built a thriving and influential center of design, where students slept under the stars and shared their meals alfresco, gazing at the rust-colored mountains. There Wright created dozens of houses tailor-made to the Arizona climate; the outdoor living rooms even had fireplaces for chilly nights.
By the time I visited Taliesin West, almost 60 years later, pollution had made it difficult to see the stars. Strip malls and red-tile-roofed subdivisions had colonized much of Wright's virgin desert and all but obscured Taliesin itself, no longer an isolated encampment but a hemmed-in relic of a more expansive age.
In the last few decades, Phoenix has spread in all directions, gobbling up the desert at the alarming rate of an acre an hour. Unlike many older cities that began with a definable center and sprouted rings of suburbs, Phoenix began with a sprawl that somehow congealed into an urban mass. Paolo Soleri, the Italian-born architect and visionary who heads the Cosanti art enclave in suburban Paradise Valley, remembers Phoenix as a big village. And so it was when he arrived in the late 1940's; it's now the sixth-largest city in the United States. "Phoenix is in the midst of a dilemma," observes the 82-year-old Soleri. "Everyone loves the desert, but everyone who moves here has a hand in destroying it."
As the native landscape disappears, it's hard to see what's drawing newcomers by the millions. And they're not snowbirds in plaid pants and golf visors hoping to practice their swing. Phoenix is no longer a retirement community; it's a boomtown. Yet its fortunes aren't tied to the rise and fall of a single industry—cars, oil, or microchips. Its success seems to feed on nothing more than old-fashioned American optimism.
When you fly into Phoenix, you see the reddish-brown mountains surrounding the city suddenly give way to a shocking carpet of irrigated green. How much precious water goes into making those impossibly shady neighborhoods?An acquaintance told me that people in Phoenix are starting to suffer from pollen allergies, thanks to all the non-native trees that homeowners have been planting in their gardens. A city that was once the last best hope of the tubercular now sends residents rushing for their inhalers.
Like the pollinating trees, most Phoenicians are transplants. As you walk through the shopping malls, air-conditioned to an icy chill, you hear a common accent. It's not a Southern drawl or a cowboy twang, but the nasal tone of the Midwest, where so many Phoenicians hail from.
The city's leaders would like to get people out of the malls and the boombergs (as the discrete communities that make up the sprawl are known) and onto downtown sidewalks. Like many American cities, Phoenix keeps getting bigger, but it doesn't feel any more urban, just more Ballardian—an agglomeration of endless highways and car parks. Isolated downtown projects are attracting visitors: the shiny copper-skinned library, an art museum, and, most recently, the federal courthouse designed by Richard Meier, whose huge glass-wrapped atrium is meant to be Phoenix's first true public square—a smallish, indoor version of Rome's Piazza Navona. For now it remains virtually empty, though; perhaps the proposed light-rail network will do the trick.
In the end, the climate may be to blame. Summers bring average daytime highs of 106 degrees; supermarkets don't get crowded until 10 p.m., when the sun has set and the temperature has dropped to 92. On one occasion in 1990 takeoffs were delayed at Sky Harbor airport because the heat—122 degrees—exceeded anything foreseen in Boeing's published flight guidelines.
On one hand, the desert is winning. The city has put in place a network of Growth Management Areas and plans to preserve 15,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert. On the other, Phoenix is growing at three times the rate of Los Angeles or New York.
This conflict between suburban sprawl and urban planning, between cutting-edge architecture and banal strip malls, between building up downtown and pushing out everywhere else, makes Phoenix a new kind of American metropolis. The problems are perhaps familiar, but the experience isn't: Where else will you find an endless stretch of suburbia morphing into an urban grid?