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Recently, Allison King from ModernPhoenix.net asked me to comment on the destruction of the Al Beadle designed Mountain Bell Plaza building, or “Ma-Bell” as I’ll always think of it. Below are the thoughts I shared with her (check out modernphoenix.net for the rest of the story):
“What makes this tragedy sting so much is that the building had a shot at being economically viable. There was a top team of talent assembled to help this developer look at ideas. We came so close to having a Beadle mixed-use tower that the thought of it still pulls at my heart.
I recall meeting one of the finance people for the developer on-site one morning. We shared an overview of the Building and a history of Al Beadle. He looked confused. His comments? ” Frankly I don’t get it, it’s just another glass box high-rise, you see them all the time”.
Appalled I asked him to really think about it. You see buildings with a glass curtain wall but Modernist buildings of this proportion? Reality is they are few and far between, but that’s what killed this building. There is perception that these designs are common and infinitely replaceable. Of course they are not; and once lost the economics of design make it very hard to bring anything like them back.
We lost a significant work by a Modernist American Architect. We also lost the memory of a civic and corporate optimism that invested in the local community. “Ma Bell” was special, and worth the effort to save.”
So that’s the end of it. But I can’t stop thinking about this kind of loss because, especially now, what goes in behind it? What, if anything fills the void? Very possibly nothing for years.
We lost a great building. That’s huge. We are also missing the opportunity to create anew. To present us with an idea that could turn out Phoenicians to look at something big and beautiful, something significant that isn’t a sports venue or shopping mall. There’s a big gaping hole on 3rd Street now, another blank square in the urban fabric. At least this time it took someone from somewhere else to rip it down, to tear a strip from our collective memory. More often than not we do it to ourselves.
I am at heart a preservationist, but I’m a realist too. I know that you can’t freeze the world in place. But really, as I look back in Phoenix I am amazed at how often what replaces something that’s interesting, historic or significant is certainly less than any of those things.
It’s one thing to lose a piece of great architecture if the new design astounds us with a fresh vision, idea or use that captivates us, or motivates our social and civic connection, or for that matter, is simply great to look at. But so often it is, at the end of the day, a net loss.
So the gauntlet tossed down is simple. The developer that could conceivably demolish this building is the one that should access the best of our local talent to find the creative solution that weaves a new piece into the fabric.
So yes, rage against the dying of the day, but we should also demand that those who demolish, and this includes the City, be pressured to heal that wound with a design that is at least worthy of its predecessor. Or better yet…something truly better than before.