This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

Why public buildings were so magnificent in the 1920s and '30s, and so awful in the 1990s


If you look at the civic architecture of the 1920s and 1930s, that is, public buildings, in places like Phoenix Arizona, you'll see some spectacular, and often showy, design. And if you look at public buildings in the 1990s, you'll see that they look awful. It's not your imagination, and it's not a conspiracy, man. It has to do with changing attitudes, the difference between "boosting" a city, and showing careful spending of tax money.

"Boosting a city", which is an old-fashioned phrase, meant doing the kinds of things that would impress people who visited your city. That meant having impressive public buildings, including fire stations, libraries, that sort of thing. The idea was to show that your city was a good place to live, and maybe to start a business. It has everything to do with the Chamber of Commerce showing what a wonderful place the city is to invest in.

Obviously, Phoenix was successful. After World War II, the growth was explosive. The biggest problem Phoenix faced was getting enough houses built, and making sure that the traffic could move. Phoenix went from "boosting" to just trying to keep up with the huge numbers of people who were flooding in. There was no reason to try to attract people with showy buildings, the emphasis was on infrastructure  - roads, schools, flood control, that sort of thing.

Of course, with the increased population, more public buildings had to be built, such as court houses, fire stations, that sort of thing. And the emphasis changed from being showy to being functional. Showy architecture became something that people in a city were suspicious of - why would a building that was paid for with tax dollars have to be so fancy? And that attitude changed the look of public buildings.

No, I won't post any examples here. But the next time you look at a public building built in the '90s, you will see serious efforts to make it look like it was built as economically as possible. The idea was to build something that was functional without getting complaints that tax money was being wasted.

Of course, design is always about backlash, and attempts were made to put a little bit of "personality" into what could have been bland buildings, often with disastrous results. Again, I won't point out which buildings, but if you live in Phoenix, you probably know which ones I mean.

Image at the top of this post: Court House and City Hall in 1930, now Historic City Hall, southwest corner of 1st Avenue and Washington, Phoenix, Arizona.


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