There is nothing that lets you understand a neighborhood better than working on its buildings and sites. Sadly, I have not been nearly involved as I should have been in the various neighborhoods I have lived over the last years, but a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of joining the students, faculty, staff of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, as well as several hundred other volunteers, in “painting the town” of Miami, Arizona. Although I might have painted myself as much as the building on which I worked, being up on the ladder for the better part of a day, talking with some of the volunteers, and seeing everyone around me transform the structures along Miami’s main street from drab to eye-catching was a true pleasure.
We were up in this small mining town about an hour west of Phoenix because for the next four years we will be mounting a series of design studios in which we will work with Miami and its larger neighbor, Globe, to figure out what we can do to improve living conditions and the attractiveness of the towns to both residents and visitors through the medium of architecture. To show our enthusiasm for this project, we were happy to go up there and help out over two days to cover many of the buildings along Arizona Route 60 with paint schemes the students devised, sometimes in collaboration with local high school students. We painted buildings and signs, brought abstractions of the nearby mountains and rhythms of red, green, blue, and yellow to walls, and along the way had a grand time.
Globe and Miami have gone through more than a century of boom and bust cycles, with new mines bringing not only a flood of residents, but also buildings that now often look too grand for these small communities. Whether it is Richardsonian Romanesque or Art Deco, French Classicism or a stripped version of High Modernism, Globe and Miami have at least one fine example of just about every style and type.
Not only did many of these buildings become vacant as mines went inactive, but there are three long-term trends that have created a forlorn atmosphere there, despite these beautiful structures: Whatever money is made there disappears to larger cities; the use of more and more technology, up to and including self-guiding robots, at the mines means that fewer and fewer workers are needed to operate what sites remain or are reopened; and, as in many small towns, a Walmart and other big box retailers have sucked the life out of the traditional downtown cores.
In addition, the mines have scarred the landscape enough that the area, though surrounded by state parks and beautiful scenery, is not immediately attractive to visitors or retirees. Finally, decades of poverty and racial inequality have created severe social problems. On the other hand, that means land and buildings are cheap, there is available land, and there are dramatic pieces of industrial archaeology everywhere. Despite the scars on the mountains, they remain dramatic.
What can an architecture school do? We do not know yet. The first thing we have done is to talk to local residents and get to know them. The second activity we have embarked upon is to document what is there. A studio under the direction of Visiting Fellows Cristina Murphy and Andrea Bertassi showed what the students and they had found in two exhibitions we held in each of the two towns this spring, and next fall we will go back to find out more.
In speaking to the residents and feeling the texture of the buildings with my paint roller, it became clear to me that those first steps were even more important than I thought. I tell my students that architecture is a way of seeing the human-made world so that you can know it and then change it. Many of the residents are already excited that we are looking hard at what they have, and beginning to point out what they have. “You have showed me the city I grew up in all my life as something I had never seen before,” one resident told me.
Of course the students and faculty already have many ideas, from little parks to community centers, that could improve Globe and Miami. But I think we first need to see what is already there in the human-made and the natural landscape, and then to draw, photograph, model, track, trace, and analyze that with love. That very act will, like painting the town, reveal the strengths and opportunity of what is already there.
Can we as a School make our improvements without gentrifying Globe and Miami to a point that locals will not have a place there, or are the social and economic problems so extreme that we will not be able to do anything? I do not think either of these extreme scenarios will be our outcome, but we have to be aware of both dangers.
So for now we getting to know these places with their industrial monuments of mine shafts, their derelict store fronts and imposing former banks, their empty lots and their lovingly tended homes. We will learn from our documentation and our painting, and perhaps Globe and Miami will learn from us, and together we might paint a better picture of these places.