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Solid Waste Management Facility

Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA

Artists: Linnea Glatt and Michael Singer


The Solid Waste Management Facility in Phoenix, Arizona represents a national model for involving artists in the design of city infrastructure which responds to community needs. Artists Linnea Glatt and Michael Singer were commissioned to work with the engineering company Black and Veatch, as collaboratively as possible, on the design team for the Facility. The artists produced the conceptual design and site plan of the Facility for the city’s Public Works Department, and then continued their work through design development and construction documentation phases and provided construction oversight services for the project. The Facility is 105,000 sq ft in area, and is designed to deal with 500 trucks and 3,500 tons of waste daily, having the twin functions of sorting rubbish prior to transport to a new landfill site 45 miles away and of recycling waste. It is one of the largest and most comprehensive waste management and recycling centres in the USA, and offers an educational resource and a demonstration of recycling in action.

The main building has a stepped appearance and has exposed open steel trusses on the roof, announcing its presence for miles around. It houses a huge open shed area for waste recycling, sorting and management, with adjacent office space, and a visitor centre, meeting room, walkway, and amphitheatre area enabling residents to see how waste is dealt with. Recycled materials have been used in the building where possible and the surrounding area has been landscaped using construction rubble planted with desert vegetation.


When Deborah Whitehurst, was appointed Executive Director of the Phoenix Arts Commission in 1986, she was already committed to public art as a tool of urban planning. She began a programme of commissions for artists to contribute to the design of urban infrastructure, thus securing significant funds for Percent for Art from large capital schemes. She also had regular meetings with the Directors of the City departments in Phoenix as part of her responsibility to identify capital projects which would generate a Percent for Art budget in the coming year.

As early as 1987, she and Ron Jensen, Director of Public Works, had identified two planned Solid Waste Facilities as potential public art opportunities. They had been unable to develop the idea further due to uncertainty over where these would be located, and about how the public could have access to the art work, as the City’s Percent for Art ordinance required. In a series of meetings which later included Gretchen Freeman, the Arts Commission’s Public Art Program Manager, they continued to discuss the possibilities. They agreed that an artist would not only contribute to the aesthetic of such facilities but could be the means of bringing their role and the issue of waste before the public, supporting the City’s plans to start a recycling scheme and encouraging residents to take responsibility for their waste.

In1989 the facilities were consolidated onto one site, next to an almost exhausted landfill site beside the Salt River, and Ron Jensen agreed that the time was right to involve the Arts Commission. By this time engineering company Black and Veatch had already been contracted by the Public Works Department to produce a conceptual master plan for the project. They presented their master plan at about this time, and extending their remit, also included their idea for a building design which would blend in with its surroundings, based on similar designs they had used elsewhere in the country.

Appointing Artists

An artist selection panel, including arts professionals and representatives of the local residents and advised by the Department of Public Works, reviewed materials of a wide variety of artists who had previously submitted applications to a slide bank and indicated an interest in participating on collaborative design teams. The panel selected two artists, who were unknown to each other, and recommended that they should be asked to collaborate with the project engineers, Black and Veatch. Michael Singer from Vermont was selected for the architectural sense of his sculpture, and Linnea Glatt from Dallas for her sense of materials, and both for their special sensitivity to place in their work. Both shared a belief in the capacity of art to fulfil a social mission and when approached, expressed interest in exploring how they might work together.

The artists attended an introductory meeting in early summer 1989 with Ron Jensen and Bruce Henning from the Public Works Department, Gretchen Freeman, and representatives of Black and Veatch. At that stage, the artists knew that they would be part of a design team for a collaborative venture, but the kind and level of their input was still not clear. At the meeting, they talked about their work, the engineers showed their initial designs, and Ron Jensen spoke about his vision of revealing to the public the infrastructure that makes cities work and about transforming public attitudes about waste. He took a decision to set aside the designs by Black and Veatch and to give the artists six weeks to come up with a concept for the facility – to imagine a place.

Design Concept

The artists worked with their own architect, Sterling McMurrin, and other technical advisers, and began by identifying all the elements of the site which could lend meaning to the place. They came back with a design concept, model and plans which dealt with the philosophical and practical issues of the Facility. They had re-orientated the buildings to optimise their situation between the city and the mountains, re-routed the road to separate the refuse lorries from private cars, and moved the administrative offices upwind of the exhausted landfill. Whilst retaining the capacity and essential functions of the building, they had designed a structure which gave the building a public profile through massive external roof trusses. The flexibility of the large shed had been increased by reducing the number of internal columns from the 22 in Black and Veatch’s original concept to only two. They did this by designing a building with columns external to the walls which combined with the steel roof truss, opened up the interior of the building, making it more flexible for the changing technology of waste processing. They had also introduced an external walkway, a large viewing window for the public to see the Facility in use, and an outside amphitheatre area for public education and lectures.

The artists’ proposal also suggested that the Facility should itself should provide a practical demonstration of its ethos, and use recycled materials in the building fabric where possible. The landscaped banks around the building made from construction rubble would be planted with native desert vegetation. The artists recommended that water from a nearby water treatment plant should be channelled to a marshy area for final purification through natural processes, demonstrating how land polluted by waste can be restored to ecological health and life. This later became part of a master plan for the larger site.

Development Phase

These innovative proposals were accepted and the artists were contracted by the Phoenix Arts Commission to develop their concept into detailed drawings and to oversee the aesthetic concerns throughout the project, including the construction phase, working with Black and Veatch who had been retained on the project by the City Engineers Department. The development phase lasted about two years. There was some initial stiff resistance from the engineers to the artists taking the lead on design thus sidelining their own designs, coupled with concern that the artists’ designs would cost more than the engineers’ original designs. Ron Jensen eased the situation by convincing the Vice President of Black and Veatch that this creative collaboration would attract national interest and kudos. The relationship thereafter did improve but the differences between the approaches and priorities of the two disciplines remained in evidence throughout the project. The Arts Commission allayed Black and Veatch’s financial concerns by paying an additional fee of $10,000 for the time and extra collaborative effort involved in working with the artists on the redesign, which was not covered by the original contract with the Department of Public Works.

Gretchen Freeman of Phoenix Arts Commission was key in realising the project as the artists had envisaged it. She was a constant support and acted as intermediary on behalf of the artists throughout the project, helping them to find their way through the political and economic issues, and representing their interests wherever necessary. Her role was particularly important during the construction phase where she paid almost daily site visits to ensure that the artists’ designs and specifications were being correctly interpreted by the engineers and construction company. She was also responsible for ensuring that unavoidable overspend in one area was off set by underspending elsewhere.

Black and Veatch had made an estimate based on their original design that bids for construction would come in at around $15m. When the project went out to tender, the lowest bid for the artists’ scheme was $13m. Whilst this might be explained away by a competitive market, the artists can claim that their much more ambitious scheme had cost no more that the standard engineering solution.


Construction began on site in June 1991 and Joe E. Woods Construction Company was brought on board. The artists had drawn up construction designs and specifications for materials which precisely reflected their aspirations for the high quality of the facility. There were instances during the construction phase when these specifications were not initially followed exactly, such as the careless placing the externally located fire protection system, and ordering of inferior quality materials, but all of these problems were rectified and the project was built according to specification.

In June 1992, before the construction phase was fully complete, there was a Dinner and Dance at the Dump launching it in the consciousness of local people by giving them a preview. This was held in conjunction with the National Assembly of Local Art Agencies’ conference, locally sponsored by the Phoenix Arts Commission. Construction was completed in late 1992 and the Facility was formally opened in April 1993.

Ongoing Developments

Although working collaboratively on the project was evidently demanding and challenging for the various partners, they all report now that it was a positive, stimulating and rewarding experience. They all recognise the success of the unique concept and design, and of the resulting building and landscape surroundings, and all have observations on how similar collaborations could be improved. Linnea Glatt and Michael Singer are continuing to work on a masterplan to deal with the 62 acre site of polluted industrial land surrounding the Facility and to push for an education plan.

Since completion, the project has been widely publicised in the USA press, including the New York Times architecture section, and in construction publications. The Solid Waste Management Facility won the Grand Prize for design for Black and Veatch in the 1994 American Academy of Environmental Engineers Awards. The work of the Phoenix Arts Commission is recognised nationally in the US as integrating the creativity of artists into the urban planning of the city – something often claimed and rarely achieved.

© Copyright Joanna Morland 2000