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How does one describe a design element that not only revitalizes a declining city that has lacked a central core for decades, but transforms a cities identity, resurrects citizen self-pride and becomes an iconic destination for a Metropolitan city of over 4 million people? Simply amazing. The Mesa Arts Center opened in September of 2005 to as eager community looking to create a new image that would place it back on the map in the Phoenix Valley. The Mesa Arts Center is the largest arts center in the state of Arizona and the only performing arts center offering comprehensive professional performing arts, visual arts and arts education programming on one campus. This seven acre campus is comprised of three buildings totalling 212,775 square feet. The Theatre complex, the Mesa Contemporary Arts and the Art Studios offers four performance theatres, five galleries, meeting space, lecture halls, studios and educational classrooms. The central theme unifying the functional diversity of this site is the “Shadow Walk”. Seeking shade and relief from the brutal Arizona sun has been a fundamental necessity since people set foot in the “Valley of the Sun” and the “Shadow Walk” theme not only embraces this functional necessity but also artistically expresses how the use of shadow or “shadow-play” can become an artistic medium. Through the strategic placement and combination of hardscape material, plant material, colored glass panels, tumbled glass aggregate and architectural shade canopies, a rich interplay of color and texture is created that delights patrons who visit this iconic modern design. The promenade, which is the core of the “Shadow Walk”, provides numerous active and passive gathering spaces that can host a variety of uses from outdoor jazz festivals to having a quiet lunch or simply reading a book. Each area is complimented with shade, colors and textures that are inviting, calming and complimentary to the native desert environment found throughout the Phoenix Valley. Beginning from the northern entry of the promenade and ending on the southern edge of the site, long curving rows of Acacia and Mesquite trees draw users in towards an interpretive desert river that runs the entire length of the “Shadow Walk”. This desert river mimics the forces of nature that dramatically cut and shape desert arroyos during the periodic flash floods commonly seen during the valley’s fall monsoon season and winter rains. Minimizing the dry seasons, a flat field of mixed tan colored tiles and cut grey stones of varied heights are placed at random locations throughout the stream section at the beginning of the feature. As the dry river proceeds further into the space, it becomes the headwaters of a desert slot canyon. The elevated cut grey stones take on a concave affect as they proceed into the center of the river channel representing both steep canyon walls


and strewn boulder fields. To fully express how water sculpts the desert slot canyons during rain storms, the desert river randomly surges with a strong force of water that rushes out from protruding pipes located in the wall of the headwater feature. Starting out as white capped waves and ending in a slow swirling pool of water illustrates the intensity and serenity of a desert river and its effect on granite and the surrounding desert. As the water slowly settles and pours into the catch basins, the river bottom slowly dissipates and again becomes a dry river bed awaiting the next surge of seasonal water that will bring life and relief to the Sonoran Desert. Not only does the desert river represent the dramatic story of a desert river systems life cycle, it provides a welcomed cooling effect within the promenade adding to the appeal and lure of the space. Located in the heart of the promenade are two distinct gathering spaces that offer patrons both outdoor entertainment and quite solace. The outdoor amphitheatre with its open air stage and multi-level seating areas plays host to numerous outdoor performances. Surrounded by large shade trees and high block walls, shaded seating can easily be found throughout the day. Backdropping the stage is a procession of blue tinted glass panels and sculptural cacti that creates a privacy screen and a clear separation of space between the promenade walk and the stage during performances. When not in use, the panels and cacti become an outdoor art piece when lit by the evening sun or carefully placed night lighting. Located directly across from the amphitheatre is a whimsical but very intriguing space where people can play or relax under large Mesquite Tree canopies. The playfulness of this space can be seen in the simplistic geometric forms, contrasting textural relief of selective materials and the use of simple color pairings between plant and hardscape material. Elementary shapes of circles, rectangles and squares highlight the entire space and add vibrancy and discovery at every viewing angle. A field of large circular stepping pads plays off the rounded forms of the golden barrel cactus along with the hundreds of small metal inlay pieces placed in the plaza and adjoining seat wall. Additionally, a procession of rectangular panels pressed into the raised planter wall mimics the glass panel’s geometry and rhythm located above the planter wall. Not only has a great deal of thought been put into the geometric relationship of specific materials and forms, but the textural contrast of these pieces adds to the enjoyment of the space for the keen observer. This can be


seen in both the smooth texture of the round stepping stone as it contrasts with the sharp spines and ribbed sides of the round Golden Barrel Cactus as well as the rough “Board-formâ€? concrete relief in the raised planter against the smooth glass panels located directly above. The final ingredient that is used to unify the mixture of materials and texture is color. The colors green, yellow and grey have been selected to highlight the plant material and the hardscape elements. The yellow painted stepping pads work harmoniously with the Golden Barrel Cactus and yellow tinted glass panels, especially when seen from afar while the deep green grass and the green body of the Golden Barrel Cactus match perfectly when seen up close within the space. The last color, grey, is used to encompass and unify this outdoor room with the greater context and theme of the promenade. Used in the raised planter, the bordering seat wall and adjoining plaza, this color and its many hues, shapes and uses plays a vital role in telling the story of one of the most dominant elements found within the Arizona Desert, that of stone. Once outside of the promenade, the exterior of the Mesa Arts Center takes on a more modern appearance. Aluminium siding panels and smooth concrete masonry block walls wrap the building facades while horizontal shade sails held together with stainless steel cables and anchors screen the western facing windows from the intense summer sun. Breaking up the building mass and intense color scheme of silver and grey are strangely tinted pieces of glass panels used as railing panels along the sky walk between the north and south studio buildings. When viewed from different angles, prismatic colors morph into swirling pattern within the glass panels that look similar to an oily residue on water. Is this a mere trick of the eye due to the lighting conditions or an intentional alteration of glass during the fabrication process? Whatever the case, these panels provide a very interesting accent to the building façade. Proceeding towards the northwestern corner of the site, the motif of stone and the whimical play of textures, colors, geometric shapes and water are again on center stage. Several grey, poured in place, concrete planter beds are vertically striated and chiselled to represent the natural hewn boulders of the desert. Within these planters are specimen desert trees, drought tolerant evergreen and deciduous


flowering plants and bold cacti. To keep with the playful theme of color usage, color pairings between the particular plant’s foliage and flower color have been integrated with the colored tumbled glass aggregate spread within the planters. In addition, light bluish colored glass panel cubes have been placed periodically throughout the plaza. During the day these cubic forms not only play off of the geometric squares and large square opening of the large sky blue colored accent wall in the background, but when viewed at night, these light bluish cubes take on an all together different appearance as they become bold green colored accent features that stand out against the now purple colored back accent wall. Even during the evening, colors seen during the day change with the introduction of warm yellow tones of lighting fixtures! Unlike the grass and cacti filled gathering area in the promenade, the play on geometric shapes are more subtle in this area. The viewer must step back and take in the entire scene in order to pick up on the refined details. Details such as the single row of small square indentations found in the lower planter beds, the bluish glass panel cubes and the multitude of square openings and the two large square viewing windows cut into the back accent wall all harmoniously work together to unify every vertical element within this space. To finally complete the theme of the northwestern plaza and to unify it to the rest of the site, the element of water is again introduced. Unlike the more artistic and contemplative approach of the desert river, several striated raised planters are used to channel the water out from the plaza towards the pedestrian streetscape. It is here where the public first comes upon the beauty and artistic quality of the Mesa Arts Center. It is here where people get drawn into these unique spaces and start to explore the many facets of the landscape design, the architecture and the world of performing arts. It is here where the citizens of Mesa, Arizona can come and realize their dream of living in a city that has been reborn and is now a leading destination within the greater Phoenix valley.

Mesa Art sCenter  

Doug Prouty writes on the success and impact of the Mesa Arts Center in Mesa, Arizona.

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