Western Civic Art: Works in Progress

In the late 1980s urban designers Catherine Brown and William Morrish created a public art master plan for Phoenix, Arizona. Now standard, the marriage of public art with urban plan was then new. We have republished this article, from a 1989 issue of Places, with images of projects that have resulted from Brown’s and Morrish’s concept.

Civic Art Plan

From the air, the form of Phoenix almost makes sense. Set on a desert floor punctuated by mountain-sized rock outcroppings, a tracery of drainage washes, and a most subtle plant palette, the lines and points of the built city give an obvious counterpoint. About a million people live within the city’s 375 square miles, on land parceled out literally along the most standard north-south survey grid used in the American west.

Within this gridded pattern, private introverted oases growing from the winter resort tradition provide a vivid celebration of the desert, its climate and lifestyle. Outside these enclaves, however, one too often confronts another reality formed by the explosive growth of look-alike streets and awkward developments across the flat city floor. Facing this, the observer of the city is soon overwhelmed and disoriented by vast distances and long lines of formularized development that obliterate any sense of the original beauty of the desert.

Growth is not about to stop. As much as 100 square miles will be annexed at the northern and western frontiers of the city. Despite this, public revenues are at a minimum and are focused primarily on catching up with private developments to provide adequate public infrastructure. To build the necessary roads, sewers, utilities, and public facilities to support this expansion, the voters approved in May 1988 a $1 billion capital improvement bond issue.

Budgets of $1 billion plus are standard in American cities today. However, as designers and civic design advocates in these cities have discovered, comprehensive urban design proposals are seen as luxury items in the face of utilitarian engineering demands. Ironically, infrastructure projects are not usually seen by designers or public officials as opportunities for building cities that are both functional and beautiful.

In Phoenix neither the citizenry nor the public officials have been willing to dictate aesthetics or visions for most of the new growth – a position not unique to that city. Like most progressive American cities, Phoenix does have a “General Plan,” which specifies such things as land use, transportation corridors, and village core planning concepts. Apart from the traditional planning documents and policies, however, there is no unified aesthetic or physical urban design plan for the entire city, no articulated vision, no philosophical statement about building a city in the desert.

Interestingly enough, it is the Phoenix Arts Commission, through its Percent for Art program, which has inherited a leading role as aesthetic urban designers for the city.

Originally Percent for Art ordinances were enacted by public agencies to require that private developers spend a percentage of their construction budgets in redevelopment projects for fine arts. Later, with varying percentage formulas being applied, the idea was expanded in many cities to require that a portion of all public dollars spent for capital improvements be set aside for art projects.

In Phoenix, the Arts Commission is articulating and implementing a vision for the city, through public art projects that pull together a diverse group of public agencies, citizens, artists, and designers. Funding is provided by an unusually broad Percent for Art ordinance approved by the City Council in 1986, which sets aside for public art one percent of the budget on virtually all future public buildings and infrastructure projects paid for with public dollars. This makes the Phoenix Public Art Program unique in that it extends, along with roads, utilities, and new buildings, to the entire city and its suburban frontiers, not just to traditional downtown redevelopment areas. The emphasis on public infrastructure projects provides an unparalleled opportunity for city-building on functional and artistic levels simultaneously.

In 1987, the Phoenix Arts Commission appointed our firm, CITYWEST, to prepare the master vision for the Public Art Plan that would establish the framework for current and future projects. In the simplest terms, the charge was to survey the city and recommend good sites for public art from an urban design viewpoint. To ensure that the sites selected were also “good” from an artist’s viewpoint, Grover Mouton, an artist, was invited to join the study team.

Relying on our previous knowledge of Phoenix, an unlimited-mileage rental car, and the new-to-Phoenix eyes of artist Grover Mouton, we began. The team’s twofold goal was to identify and select the project art sites and to ensure that collectively all selected sites (with their artworks) would form a comprehensive system which would create a clearer sense of orientation and place within Phoenix. Our notion was that the form and structure of such a comprehensive arts plan system might contain formal characteristics similar to the pattern of public infrastructure systems. Both systems were seen as containing single elements and extensive supporting networks serving various functions all woven together into a complex urban fabric. This was further reinforced by the fact that as infrastructure is funded and built, money is then available to fund the public art projects network parallel to the first system.

Zone Description: One to two block wide zone running parallel to Central Avenue from South Mountain Park north to the Arizona Canal.

Observations: Central Avenue is a street for the whole city. Historically the north/south axis of Phoenix, Central Avenue serves as a super scaled main street, the linear heart of the city, the parade route for civic festivities. The Central Avenue Corridor Image Study describes it as a linear assemblage of rooms clustered along an axis running from North Mountain to South Mountain. Serving as the location of the Heard Museum, Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix Little Theater, the Main Library, and other cultural facilities, Central Avenue is a cultural experience formalizing itself into a truly unique urban street. Public art can help to demarcate this space as well as embellish and enhance the positive elements which presently exist.

Her Secret is Patience
Her Secret is Patience, 2009. Janet Echelman. Phoenix Civic Space Park. [photograph: Craig Smith]

Zone Description: Papago Park and Pueblo Grande Park

Observations: Pueblo Grande is one of the first urban settlements in the valley and is the historic urban center of the city. Presently, its identity and location within the city is lost amongst the industrial and commercial uses of the area. In the near future construction of a new highway will pass close by to the eastern edge of Pueblo Grande. This urban historic site must be reinstated into the public consciousness. To the south of Pueblo Grande is an old abandoned area which was once called the Park of Four Waters, a place where the historic irrigation canals intercepted the water of the Salt River that was then carried into the city. This site also needs to be revived in the public consciousness.

Papago Park and the forms of its natural topography create a unique landmark in the city. Public art should be integrated into this landscape for a dual purpose. The first is to heighten the sense of arrival and experience of this place through the placement of markers in the landscape, defining edges and points of reference in the open land. Secondly, art can help to create an entrance into Phoenix from Scottsdale and Tempe.

Zone Description: Neighborhood Parks are designated, developed public parks included on the Parks, Recreation and Library Department’s facility map and are scattered throughout Phoenix.

Observations: Neighborhood parks are points of concentrated pedestrian activity throughout the city. They are publicly owned and are a logical place for public art projects. Envisioned projects include water elements, landscaping, playgrounds, picnic areas, paths, benches, gateways, restrooms, drinking fountains.

Tres Rios Butterfly Garden
Tres Rios Butterfly Garden, 2006. Matthew and Maria Salenger (coLab).

Zone Description: Unique to Phoenix are the magnificent mountain parks that frame the city’s vistas. The parks include North Mountain, Squaw Peak, and South Mountain Park.

Observations: Forming a semicircular ring around the valley of Phoenix are rocky desert mountains. They are key landmarks in describing Phoenix as a distinctive urban place. Without intruding into preserve lands, art works can be used to heighten the experiential quality of these gigantic islands which rise from the urban sea. Artists can help define the gateways and boundaries of the parks, as well as collaborating in the design of the functional elements for areas of the park that are to be developed for recreational use.

Zone Description: Canals carry water and cut diagonally through the grid of the city. The major canals are Central Arizona Project, Arizona Canal, Grand Canal, and Western Canal.

Observations: The canal system that passes through the village is one of the oldest urban systems in the city. Within the canal, the city’s lifeblood, water, flows to its various destinations. The development of sites and works along the canal routes is seen as a mechanism to heighten the presence of the system within people’s perception of the city and its history. It is a unique event, when traveling across the sprawling grid of the city, to suddenly cross a canal flowing diagonally under the street. It is projected in city plans that the canal levees will be developed as pedestrian trails. Art works can enhance this pathway system providing interesting destinations or creating functional elements such as seating, shade, and drinking water rest stops.

Sunny Slope Canal
Sunnyslope Canal Demonstration Project, 2000. M. Paul Friedberg, Steve Martino, Doug Hollis, Jackie Ferrara. Arizona Canal between Central and 7th St.

Zone Description: Major traffic routes across the city in all three categories.

Observations: Roadways crisscross in a grid-like fashion across the valley floor. They have mainly been perceived as utilitarian viaducts for moving traffic efficiently between destination points. This strict utilitarian rule is beginning to change as new development emerges along their right-of-ways. People are becoming concerned not only about what the view to the road is; just as important to them is the view from the road. Because the city, county, and state are involved in an extensive revamping of the road network, there exists an opportunity to introduce the sensibility of the artist in an attempt to enhance the sense of movement, space, time, and orientation experienced in our daily travels. The first step is to explore this idea through design studies in order to define the appropriate design vocabulary and project descriptions.

KMVP Pedestrian Bridge
Kyrene Monte Vista Pedestrian Bridge, 2004. Al Price with engineer SVR, Inc.
[photograph: Erin Flinton]

Mountain Pass Bridge
Mountain Pass Pedestrian Bridge, 1998. Laurie Lundquist with engineer SVR, Inc. SR51.
[photograph: Tim Lanterman]

SWTF Terraces
Solid Waste Management Facility, 1993. Michael Singer and Linnea Glatt. 27th Avenue and Lower Buckeye Road.
[photograph: Craig Smith]

Art is a Guaranty of Sanity
Art is a Guaranty of Sanity, 2006. Louise Bourgeois. Phoenix Convention Center.
[photograph: Bill Timmerman]

Zone Description: Any project that does not fall into the previous 13 zones, located anywhere in the city.

Observations: Special projects is a working zone category that contains sites which are primarily “one of a kind” projects scattered throughout Phoenix. Currently the individual sites are envisioned as one-time-only developments; however, they may emerge as the first prototype for future working zones.

Editors’ Note

This article was originally published in a print issue of Places Journal: Volume 5, Issue 4. The entire print archive (1983–2009) is available in PDF format.

William Morrish, “Western Civic Art: Works in Progress,” Places Journal, April 1989. Accessed 04 Jun 2020. <>

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