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Solid Waste Management Facility

Press Article

Article reproduced from the New York Times Arts & Leisure section, Sunday August 29 1993

When Art is a Public Spectacle

By Herbert Muschamp

In Phoenix, the old order has fallen by the wayside. In this vibrantly adolescent city, where people dine al fresco in shopping malls beneath clouds of mechanically created mist, a fertile new vision is reshaping the land and the roads that pass through it. Here, highway and landscape have begun to enter into a new civic partnership, one that fuses their traditional roles. Roads, enriched with landscape and art, have become empathetic. Land has begun to function as an engineer: a force from which the city's builders take their cues.

What gives this vision such pivotal importance is the renewed prominence of public works on the national agenda. It's been scarcely a year since the Presidential campaign plucked the word "infrastructure" from relative obscurity and propelled it into popular consciousness Yet, sadly, in this brief time the word has passed from being a symbol of hope to a synonym for pork.

The cynicism is not misplaced. Throughout the country, local officials have responded to the prospect of Federal financing by dusting off old projects or basing new ones on old ideas.

But next month, when the American Public Works Association gathers in Phoenix for its annual congress, officials from around the nation will see how public works can become a vehicle for transforming the public realm.

The catalyst has been art. Or, more accurately, the Phoenix Arts Commission and its dynamic director, Deborah Whitehurst. Together with Gretchen Freeman, director of the city's public art program, Ms. Whitehurst has turned public art into something worthy of the legendary W.P.A. Like many other American cities, Phoenix has adopted "percent for art" legislation, which specifies that a portion of the budget for government-sponsored buildings must be set aside for art. But Ms. Whitehurst has developed an unusually ambitious vision of her city's "percent for art" program. Instead of focusing resources on individual buildings, Ms. Whitehurst has conceived of public art as a tool of urban planning.

In 1988, she commissioned a master plan from William, Morrish and Catherine Brown, the architecture and urban design team who direct the University of Minnesota's Design Center for American Urban Landscape. The plan proposed that the "percent for art" program focus on the city's infrastructure: not only on highways and neighborhood streets, but also airports, canals, bus stops, water and waste treatment plants.

With 68 projects completed or in the works, Phoenix has shown that public art can be a way to coordinate public works.

With its newest public art project, the Phoenix Solid Waste Management Center, the program has moved out of the realm of metaphor and begun to alter reality.

The $18 million transfer facility is the true modern Hohokum, the citadel of "all used up." Here, newspapers, soda cans, pizza boxes, pantyhose and toaster ovens mass together in an automated orgy of discarded plenty.

Ordinarily, a facility like this would not qualify for art funds, because the public wouldn't get to see it. This is where municipal sanitation trucks unload household trash onto larger trucks that then cart it off to landfills. Initially, the center had been designed, by the engineering firm Black & Veatch, as a respectable-looking utilitarian shed.

The brilliant leap that set this plan in motion came with the recognition that this was precisely the kind of place that needed to be brought into the public realm. Joining Ms. Whitehurst and Ms. Freeman in making that leap was Ron Jensen, director of the Phoenix Department of Public Works. When the three met in 1989 to discuss prospects for creating public art for projects under Mr. Jensen's supervision, the waste management center was not initially on the agenda. But Mr. Jensen, a former president of the American Public Works Association, has long championed the idea that the public should be more educated about the gears that make cities turn. As the officials talked, it occurred to them that the "percent for art" program could be a key to achieving that goal.

A panel assembled to choose an artist for the project instead picked two and made the unusual recommendation that they collaborate. Then Mr. Jensen made the even more outlandish suggestion that the artists run the entire project. Black & Veatch's original scheme would be set aside, though the firm would remain as project engineers. The artists, Michael Singer and Linnea Glatt, were asked not only to come up with designs, but also to devise ways to put the public into the picture. In effect, the I percent for art found itself in charge of the other 99 percent.

This radical extension of the artists' control has rankled some members of the architectural establishment, who fear the prospect of artists taking work away from architects, or at least diluting their authority. These objections fall wide of the mark. Mr. Singer and Ms. Glatt were not hired to design a building, They were invited to imagine a place, and they were highly qualified for the job. Though the two artists had not worked together before, each had previously collaborated with architects and designers on public art projects. Mr. Singer, who lives in Wilmington, Vt., is known for outdoor works that integrate sculpture with landscape. Ms. Glatt, who lives in Dallas, has created sculptural installations on an architectural scale. The two share a belief in the capacity of art to fulfill a social mission.

Ron Jensen wanted to see that belief translated into public works. In his view, one of the problems with infrastructure is its segregation from the community. Though we can't live without it, we'd prefer not to live with it. We don't want to see the "dirty work" infrastructure performs. We're a nation of Not in My Back Yards. Or we say to public projects, pretend you're something else. At the new Riverbank State Park in Manhattan, for example, there is scarcely any connection between the park and the waste treatment plant on which it sits. Though this arrangement reflected community desires, an opportunity was nonetheless lost to rethink the way a public place can enlighten us about the way our city works.

Phoenix's waste management facility is a fulfillment of Mr. Jensen's dream to turn "nimby" into "yimby" - Yes, in My Back Yard. If we're willing to troop up to the American Museum of Natural History to look at the shattered pots of ancient civilizations, why should we profess revulsion at the sight of our own archeology in the making? At a time when people recognize the critical need to establish more harmonious relations with the earth, why shouldn't there be a place where we can go to see how that goal might be attained?

The waste management center is such a place. It's about a 10 minute drive from downtown Phoenix, heading south across a flat industrial landscape, with the South Mountains stretching across the horizon ahead. As part of the highway culture, the center naturally needs a sign, and it has a beaut. A gigantic open-steel truss, crowning the building, can be seen from miles away. Pulling onto the 24-acre site, visitors drive alongside a looming, loaf-shaped landfill. This, too, is a sign: a symbol of "all used up." It says why this place is necessary: landfill can't go on forever. A civilization built on expansiveness must now reckon with limits.

Though the landfill was not initially created as a formal piece of landscape, it has now become one. As artificial as anything created by Olmsted, the mound of earth-covered trash conveys a similar message about the longing of industrial society for an arcadian escape. But here society faces the less-than-arcadian consequences of its own industrial strength. The center isn't a park, precisely. In fact, its designers resisted proposals to create playgrounds or sports fields here. A more apt analogy would be an aquarium or a zoo: a place for special trips.

As in the original scheme, the center's most conspicuous feature is a spare horizontal shed, but its utilitarian forms have been shaped toward more poetic purpose. Walls of gray cement block rise in shallow tiers planted with desert vegetation. The stepped effect is vaguely Mayan - a echo of the fabulous Arizona Biltmore hotel, a 1929 landmark on the other side of town designed, in part, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Like Taliesin West, Wright's winter home, the Biltmore speaks of an era when Phoenix beckoned to those who wished to exchange civilization for open spaces. The center updates that ethos as it reckons with the hordes of happy campers who have moved to Phoenix since.

The heart of the center is the shed's vast, open-span interior, a space the size of two football fields. Though now used primarily as a depot for the trucks that transfer trash to landfills, this space contains sorting and recycling equipment that will eventually cut landfill shipments by 30 percent. Visitors can watch these operations from catwalks arid from an exterior amphitheater that looks into the interior through large glass windows. This is an operating theater for environmental therapy.

The design details throughout the complex are excruciatingly refined. Windows are carefully aligned with dramatic vistas within and without. Huge machines are installed with the precision of classical statues. Translucent panels and skylights bathe the interior with Gothic light. The effect is not pretty. Instead, the artists have reached for awe. Like the great Galerie des Machines at the 1889 Paris Exposition, the center extracts from industry its aura of holy terror, fusing it with the American landscape tradition of the pitiless and the sublime.

Here, the end of the road has become a beginning. Though we may have run out of room for physical expansion, Phoenix has shown that our capacity for invention is far from all used up.