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How Will Phoenix Rise from the Ashes of COVID-19?

Local design professionals share their creative visions for life in a post-pandemic Phoenix.

By Carly Scholl

For centuries, our state has been shaped—culturally and literally—by the quest for health and healing. Boasting alluring blue skies, a warm, arid climate and seemingly infinite space to stretch out under the perpetual sunshine, Arizona has long sung its siren song to weary Midwesterners and East Coasters seeking a respite from brutal winters, oppressive rain and overcrowded cities—all of which can take a harsh toll on the body.

“The territory began to see major development in the 1880s after it was discovered to be an ideal place to treat tuberculosis, which was a massive epidemic at the turn of the century,” explains Dr. Lisa Schrenk, associate professor of architectural history at University of Arizona. “People were advised by their doctors to move to a dry climate with lots of fresh air and sunshine, and health camps, wellness resorts and sanatoriums began springing up in such areas as Tucson, Tempe, Sunnyslope, Cave Creek and Prescott.” Scottsdale was even briefly known as the “White City” due to the large encampment of tents set up for patient treatment in the early 1900s.

The Arizona State Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Tempe opened in 1934 as a place for patients to recover in a dry, arid climate.

“During this time, attitudes toward design and architecture around the world began to shift radically due to the spread of tuberculosis,” asserts Schrenk. “In the Victorian era, intricately carved and upholstered furnishings, heavy drapery, decorative trim and thick carpets in every room—including the bathroom—defined the average home. But when experts realized that tuberculosis could be spread through household dust, suddenly there was a huge emphasis on cleanliness. Inspired by sanitorium design, Le Corbusier and other renowned architects of the time popularized an austere, simple, unadorned style that highlighted open spaces and natural light.” This aesthetic and philosophical revolution extended to nearly all corners of the globe, and Arizona was no exception.

“When Frank Lloyd Wright’s physician ordered him to get out of the midwestern climate to recuperate from pneumonia in the mid 1930s, the architect created Taliesin West in Scottsdale and helped usher in the Modern age in Arizona,” says Schrenk. “Many of the major players who were responsible for making Phoenix the city that it is today originally came here in pursuit of wellness.” Developer Del Webb, the parents of senator Carl Hayden and rancher Dwight B. Heard all moved to Arizona on doctors’ recommendations.

“Many of the major players who were responsible for making Phoenix the city that it is today originally came here in pursuit of wellness.”

—Dr. Lisa Schrenk, associate professor

As we face this current COVID-19 pandemic and health is again at the forefront of collective thought, how will the built world reflect our evolving needs and concerns? We asked three local design professionals for their predictions about the future of Phoenix.

Changing with the Times

In the midst of a global health crisis that has interrupted the flow of daily life for nearly everyone, flexibility and adaptability have become perhaps the most valuable personal traits. Architect Marlene Imirzian believes they will also become fundamental aspects of building design in the near future. “As we’ve discovered, life can change in an instant,” she says. “Having adaptability built into the very foundations of your home will allow you to transform your living space to suit immediate needs while also being prepared for the future when new needs may arise.”

Architect Marlene Imirzian’s award-winning design for HomeNZ, a net-zero single-family structure, features open, adaptable rooms.

The architect, whose firm focuses on sustainability in contemporary residential and commercial design, is currently working on an entry-level housing project that embodies these forward-thinking attributes. “The units measure between 900 and 1,200 square feet, as there is a growing market for people who really want to live in a single-family environment but are not interested in an expansive house,” she notes. “If we think about flexibility in the initial design of a home, we can make it much more accommodating to the way our lives change. We’re envisioning movable walls so that you could transform an area of your home into an office. Or maybe you could partition off a separate room for someone who is ill. And, when the circumstances permit, you could open everything up to be one big space. This expression of functionality is completely different from the typical house model and it’s very exciting.”

Imirzian also believes this vision could apply to public buildings and the built environment, where social distancing may permanently affect how people interact. “I think planned exterior spaces, such as patios, terraces or lawns, will become much more necessary in offices so that employees can congregate outside in the fresh air without having to cram into an enclosed conference room. Parks will have more open spaces and wider pathways, and we’ll even have to rethink our mass transit situation,” she predicts. “One of the important things I’ve found is that there is a human benefit in seeing others and being part of your community. There is a kind of a quantifiable health factor to spending time with other people and, as such, it’s important that we invest in and think about public and private spaces as a really important part of community engagement.”

Living Spaces

“Because we as a species have spent so much of our existence evolving in very close contact with nature, we’re biologically wired to respond to its patterns,” explains interior designer Sonja Bochart. “Biophilia literally translates to ‘love of life,’ and there are so many studies in this field that demonstrate how we are physiologically affected by the natural world. Spending just 40 seconds outside can lower your blood pressure, stimulate your immune system and encourage brain function. If we can translate these stimuli into our living spaces, we can experience holistic wellness in mind and body.”

Biophilic design celebrates a mindful connection to the natural elements, as seen in this space created by interior designer Sonja Bochart that boasts organic materials and an integrated relationship to plant life and sunlight.

Bochart notes that, perhaps now more than ever, we need to acknowledge the effects our surroundings have on our mental and physical health. “Beauty is really important and can be so healing, and we need to find and foster it wherever we can. Even if you have a small space, you can still do amazing things because there’s a biological tendency for us to feel a sense of well-being and comfort. So how can you find this magical moment around your own home?” she asks. Engage all your senses and pay attention to what elements of nature you respond to most strongly. “Evoke the sense of birdsong with wind chimes, or use materials that change overtime and patina, such as copper, to remind you that we are deeply connected to the cycles and seasons,” she advises.

Though it is good to have houseplants, sunlight and color in your home, this aesthetic philosophy goes much deeper than just literal iterations of nature. “For example,” explains Bochart, “in the last few years research has been conducted on the patterns of light and shadow, known as fractals, in the context of human response. If we mimic the way sunlight comes through the treetops and dapples the forest floor, perhaps through perforated metal panels or refracting surfaces, we stimulate the part of our brain that associates canopies with shelter. Even using organic shapes and avoiding harsh straight lines in our decor and design can reconnect us to the flow of the world outside.”

A Respite for Reflection

“For my whole career as a landscape architect, I’ve always felt that to be in fresh air, among plants, even just sitting in the shade of a tree, is healing for your soul, mind and body,” asserts Kristina Floor. “I live in a desert terrain and, since I’ve been working from home, I can’t believe how many different birds I’ve seen just in the last few months that I really didn’t notice before—cardinals, lovebirds, finches, roadrunners, hawks, owls. It’s relaxing to see nature not only in the plant form but in the animal form sharing this space I’m in.” Floor predicts that, in the age of coronavirus and beyond, the personal connection to our outdoor spaces will perhaps be more important than ever, as Arizonans evaluate how their surroundings serve them in uncertain times.

A sketch of a landscape design by Kristina Floor shows an outdoor kitchen, two dining areas and three raised vegetable beds where the family can grow, cook and enjoy meals at home.

“Lately, I have had a few clients ask me to create a sacred space in their backyards,” she explains. “They want a place where they can be by themselves and just reflect. Since more people are spending time at home right now, those mindful outdoor areas will become much more crucial to people who want to connect with nature but stay safe on their own properties.” Floor notes that no matter what size your yard is, you can create a special, personal space by diversifying the botanical palette to make it more of an experience. “Plant your favorite fragrant species, such as jasmine or gardenia, in a shady spot near a dining table or lounge chairs to differentiate your spot from the rest of the yard,” she advises.

The landscape architect also anticipates an increased interest in gardening, as people begin to think about sustainability and self-reliance in the face of a shifting economy. “I think vegetable gardens will become more prevalent. It’s great to be able to grow a few things that you use on a regular basis, such as herbs, tomatoes or lettuce, just so you can have fresh, healthy food harvested from your own backyard.” In that same vein, Floor believes that, with people staying away from restaurants, outdoor dining areas and kitchens will become much more popular with homeowners. “It’s really important to create those exterior rooms that have the social-distance space that we’ll continue to need in the future but where families and friends can still gather and be in community responsibly.”


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