Architectural Stimulus

Making the argument for art and architecture during a downturn.

Chandler City Hall
(Rendering courtesy of SmithGroup)

Art and design are too often the first to go when budgets shrink. They can be seen as window dressing, as superfluous expenditures in tough economic times. While the arts community argues its relevancy and advocates for a share in the nation’s economic stimulus package, local battles of public opinion are already being waged. Take a look at Chandler, Arizona.

The city of 250,000 has never had a proper city hall and this year they are set to break ground on a new 131,000-square-foot, $51-million facility by SmithGroup. Design Principal Mark Roddy designed the 4.2-acre campus and dubbed it “urban edge” for its walkable, people-oriented approach.

“We have plaza spaces, very open, in line with the kind of courtyard idea of traditional southwest design,” Roddy says of the structure, which is aiming for LEED Gold. “We are planting native trees and creating a space around city hall that will actually be used by the public after hours and on the weekends.”

On the West side of the building, where the blazing Arizona sun could turn the glass and steel building into a heat sink, Roddy contracted California artist Ned Kahn to create one of his famous wind screens out of perforated aluminum. (Kahn also designed a screen for Tom Oslund’s landscape plan for the Minnesota Twins Ballpark). In addition to providing a showstopping piece of art, the screen serves a practical purpose by being integrated into the structure in such a way as to cut down on glare and heat gain.

“I can’t imagine a better place to have public art,” Roddy says. And the Chandler Arts Commission agreed, voting unanimously last week to include the screen in the building. Chandler is among the many cities embracing the 1% for public arts program for its municipal buildings, so the budget for the piece is already in the city coffers. Even so, the $176,000 price tag didn’t sit well with some in the City Council. An article in The Arizona Republic this week voiced concern that the expense was irresponsible in light of the city’s potential budget cuts in other civic services. More heated than the article itself, however, were the comments the news elicited from readers. It portends the battle to come for architects and artists:

“Even if the money comes from a different pot, now is not the time to even give the perception that money is not being handled well. Tighten the belt…wait until better times for art to be created and viewed,” posted az59.

Someone calling themselves Fire85 wrote this about the building: “I, as a citizen of Chandler, find this financially irresponsible in light of the budget issues and would much rather fund public safety needs first. They have offices and a place to sit. What’s the big deal?”

Oh, it’s a slippery slope.

So what is the big deal, Mr. Roddy?

“Throughout history we’ve seen public buildings that took architecture to the highest artform as a representation of the community’s commitment to culture,” he says. “From an architect’s standpoint, the same way that I feel that architecture is necessary for building communities and establishing an identity, the public art component does the same thing. Particularly in a city hall, which is at the heart of where the community does its civic business.”


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