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Urban Blight
Posted by: Dale Franks on Tuesday, September 04, 2007

I don't want to get all Lileks-y on you, but I'm going to, because I've spent the last several days in Tucson, AZ. And, frankly, I'm appalled.

The people of Tucson are open and friendly. Going there from California, the vibe completely changes. California is, to put it bluntly, full of a-holes. Arizonans are much nicer in aggregate.

But these extremely nice people have managed to build a downtown of astounding ugliness. If architecture and pictures of buildings are a bore for you, then just go ahead and skip this post. For the remaining few, read on.
Downtown Tucson has managed to expunge most of the traditional western and Southwestern architecture that used to be there. In it's place, they've aggregated every bad architectural idea of the last 40 years, in a surprisingly small space.

This is downtown as seen from a nearby mountain. It doesn't take up much room, because Tucson is a fairly small city.

But they've crammed a goodly number of monstrosities into it.

Take this hideous plinth of a structure, for instance.

This is the county legal services building, where the prosecutors and public defenders do their work. I can only surmise that the architect thought that a suitably prison-like atmosphere would be a constant reminder of the realities of their work. two sides of the building have no windows at all. The other two sides cover all the windows with gold-colored aluminum grillwork, whose only apparent purpose is to prevent any escape during a fire or other emergency, condemning the occupants to a horrific death.

Notice the gaily colored gray-blue tiles that cover the building's side. It's as if the architect was thinking, "What adornment would be even uglier than plain concrete tiltwalls? And while we're at it, why use nice silver grillwork on the other sides, that would match the blue-gray tiles? Gold clashes much more glaringly with slate blue than silver does. And let's cap it off with a funereal black facade on top, just to give the whole thing that final bit of foreboding feeling that every modern building needs."

I don't actually know what this building is. But it looks like the surface annex of the führerbunker. There are no windows. just flat slab walls, to ensure the nameless drones who work there don't waste valuable time looking outside. there are probably no clocks in there either, to encourage the proles to work longer.

All I can figure about this building is that the white panels are sun shields, to prevent the building from turning into a sauna in the 115° heat of the afternoon. There are windows in this building, but unfortunately, they provide nothing but a view of the back side of the sun screen thingy.

When the oceans rise, and the big earthquake in California extends the northern shore of the Gulf of Baja into Arizona, the employees of this bank will simply start the engines, sending the mighty prow of this building through the waves to safety.

It doesn't have to mean anything. It's art. Notice, though, that there are benches at the base of it. There's no shade, of course, so the steel benches will blister your backside, while the desert sun poaches your brain like an egg.

This is the Unisource Energy building. Unisource is a big utility holding company, so they have more money than Croesus. Money can't buy taste, apparently.

The clouds were pretty, though. I just thought we needed a bit of an aesthetic break here.

Well, there you go. The worst of the '90s juxtaposed with the worst of the '70s. Notice that both buildings are clean and spare in entirely different, yet equally ugly ways.

In the 1960s, this was what the future was supposed to look like. This was the kind of building that Logan was going to live in, at least, until he turned thirty, and had to go on the run from his fellow sandmen. It looks awfully dated now though. Even worse, the marble surface looks like the same sort of stuff you build mausoleums out of. Basically, it's a crypt with odd windows. It's probably a nice building to be inside, though, if for no other reason than when you're inside it, you can't see the outside any more.

Fortunately, they haven't killed all of Tucson. The central court building still has that mixture of southwestern/Spanish baroque look. No doubt they're already planning to raze it to the ground in order to replace it with something square, surfaced with black glass.

Hey, here's an idea. Instead of filling in all the window spaces with glass, let's put little ramps under all the windows, so if anyone what to escape during a fire, the little ramps will give them enough horizontal speed to land in the middle of the street, rather than where the firemen are waiting on the sidewalk to catch them.

Building, Government, 1 each. It's like a mini reproduction of CIA headquarters in Langley, VA.

Unfortunately, the private sector isn't doing much better. This is a downtown hotel. I believe its name is "The Traveller's Cube".

This building is no different from a thousand others just like it all across the country. Cookie-cutter architecture. Except for one sad thing. The architect wasn't satisfied with another concrete and glass cube. No, he had to try and pretty it up with a sad little flourish...

Each of the four corners has one of these sad little columns. And they're completely lost—not to mention completely out of place—in the overall design. I completely overlooked them the first time I saw the building. They are just overwhelmed by the rest of the building's design, and when you do see them, they look so out of place, they're just silly. They're just a sad little reminder of how little creativity the architect had.

Now, I'm not trying to say that Tucson is fundamentally uglier than other cities. It isn't, and these cookie-cutter monstrosities can be found in every major city. It is sad, though, that Tucson has, like so many cities across the country, just jettisoned so much of it's distinctive look, in order to embrace so much ugly modernity. It's really a microcosm of what has been going on everywhere in the country.

Who wants building to look like this? Who pays architects to design these featureless boxes? Why don't we want something more aesthetically pleasing? Why are we satisfied with such utilitarian structures?
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Previous Comments to this Post 

Maybe you and Lileks should collaborate on a new coffee-table book. You can call it Exterior Desecrations.
Written By: Random Numbers
The ’gold’ grill looks like someone came by after the building was originally designed & built and used a mercury based paint to prevent corrosion and bacteria/mold/etc growth (general discoloration).
Written By: jpm100
URL: http://
You don’t recognize good Soviet architecture when you see it, Dale.

It looks like a typical SUNY campus in upstate New York.
Written By: Martin McPhillips
Why are we satisfied with such utilitarian structures?

Written By: Grimshaw
URL: http://
Tucson native....feeling sad.
Written By: Craig Landon
URL: http://
Architects fell into the same trap that "modern" artists, "modern" classical composers, jazz musicians, and so many others fell into in the 50s and 60s. If it’s beautiful, if it makes people feel good, if "the squares" (you and me) appreciate it, then it’s not "art," it’s a sell-out. Everything they make is ugly and unpopular, but they enjoy the respect and appreciation of the only people who matter, their peers. Anyone who creates traditional, beautiful architecture, art, or music, is regarded with contempt within his soi-disant "artistic" community.
Written By: Wiz
URL: http://
How many windows do typical native American structures in the Southwest have? I am guessing thick adobe walls with tiny windows.

Form follows function.
Written By: Harun
URL: http://
Wiz writes:
Architects fell into the same trap that "modern" artists, "modern" classical composers, jazz musicians, and so many others fell into in the 50s and 60s. If it’s beautiful, if it makes people feel good, if "the squares" (you and me) appreciate it, then it’s not "art," it’s a sell-out.
Even the homely row houses of the 19th Century, built largely on the untilitarian principle of filling an urban space with a structurally sound building, still had an innate aesthetic sense.

It took real university-educated 20th Century architects to create graceless exteriors and interiors. The modern university is the single most atavistic institution of our time. (It amazes me that people anxiously pony-up the dough to send their kids there.)
Written By: Martin McPhillips
"It took real university-educated 20th Century architects to create graceless exteriors and interiors."

Yeah, it takes a boatload of cash, an Ivy League education, and a lot of hard work to get something that ugly out of beautiful materials and 10,000 years of architectural tradition!
Written By: Mikey NTH
URL: http://
BTW, you really want ugly? Take a gander at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit.
Written By: Mikey NTH
URL: http://
How DARE you call that stuff UGLY!!

Your bourgeois sense of beauty is RACIST!

/rational mode on

Gotta have a lot of public works to spread $$$ to all the otherwise unemployable, including UofA architecture students that could not design a lemonade stand.

Written By: Sharpshooter
URL: http://
Things are not getting better out there.

Written By: Grimshaw
URL: http://
How many windows do typical native American structures in the Southwest have? I am guessing thick adobe walls with tiny windows.
Yeah. See, the thing is, we invented this deal called "air conditioning" about 60 years ago. Maybe you’ve heard about it. It was in all the papers.
Written By: Dale Franks
I don’t think it’s the architects fault for having to build/design something that another person puts the funds up for cheap, (or deadpan) materials, or other resources. Whomever the building is designed for are the ones who pay for it, right? And if people don’t want to pay a lot of money for it, it may very well have a banal look to it. It’s a money/convenience factor, which i think is not right for aestetic reasons.

How old is our nation again...?
It is amazing to see how much growth their is in such a short period of time. I can understand why people are in such a rush to develop something so fast for economic/profitable purposes.
Just wait till no one inhabits these buildings anymore and urban blight starts to kick in. It’ll look worse than it already is, when no one starts to take care of these buildings and they’re left to deteriorate. Do you think these buildings are worth saving, over others? And what will happen when they become an eye-sore to the environment of a city?
Personally, i think bad planning is the cause for situations like this.
It’ll only create waste in the end, and the cycle will go on...
Written By: stefanie
URL: http://

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