Phoenix Envy

Originally published in 

Skip Sedona and forget the Grand Canyon? Architect Will Bruder leads us on a journey through slow food and rapid development in Phoenix, Arizona.

I’m sitting at a conference table in an old Fred Astaire dance studio in Phoenix, Arizona. Outside the sculptural entrance sit rusty gabions filled with black cinder clinkers from a volcano in nearby Flagstaff. Across from me is Will Bruder, dressed in a casual iteration of the quintessential architect’s uniform: long-sleeved black shirt complemented by geometric eyeglasses. Bruder is reserved as we shake hands, but as soon as our conversation turns to Phoenix, his manner quickly changes to impassioned extrovert. His name is attached to nearly every important building in the area from the past 30 years, including the Phoenix Central Library and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Frank Lloyd Wright is the one with the storied past in Arizona, but if he’s been cast as the Godfather, Bruder is playing Michael Corleone.

It was Phoenix’s optimism that attracted Bruder to the city in 1974 when he first opened his studio. “The uniqueness of the horizon and the desert light encouraged everybody to try something different,” the architect reminisces. This sanguine attitude, coupled with the arid climate and a low cost of living has brought hordes of carpetbaggers to the Valley of the Sun. Unprecedented growth, some positive, some not, has been the recurring headline in recent years.

The Phoenix metropolitan area is among the fastest-growing areas in the United States, and urban planning has usually taken a back seat to unfettered development as a result. The car is king here—driving is just about the only way to get around the more than 9,200 square miles of the region. As Bruder says, “In this community it’s been hard to define the foot and the bicycle as much as the car.

And he’s right. Navigating Phoenix is a lesson in freeway nomenclature. The endless pavement and strip malls remind me of a distant Los Angeles suburb with its own international airport. But hope looms on the beautiful iridescent horizon. A new light-rail system will soon be up and running, the slow food movement is taking hold, and promise still burns eternal in this ever-evolving Southwestern town.

Phoenix seems to be living up to its name. While the tabloids are fond of Maricopa County for its colorful sheriff and the pink jumpsuits he makes inmates wear, I found quality cuisine, a thriving art scene, and unique modern architecture with a keen sense of material and siting. Bruder took some time to talk about desert design, where to find the best burger in town, and how to celebrate the summer solstice in Arizona’s biggest city.

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