Fifty years after Seattle’s Space Needle came to stay, many in the city still revile it. As writer Jonathan Raban once quipped, "Living with the Space Needle is like having to live with a velvet portrait of Jesus." Yet the Space Needle has been massively successful as a business model. Now, a group of developers is hoping to replicate its success in Phoenix. Working with Bjarke Ingels Group, Novawest Ventures has unveiled plans for an observation tower smack dab in the Arizona city’s downtown.
To be clear, the Phoenix Observation Tower (or POT for short) is far from being under way. In fact, Novawest is only beginning to look for investors for the $60 million project, which will sit on city-owned land next door to the Science Center. "Everyone’s first reaction is, 'You wanna do what?'" Novawest principal Jay Thorne told me over the phone. "But then, as they’ve seen more about the project, the response has been very enthusiastic."
An RFP process begun last year netted a number of interesting proposals. BIG was eventually chosen for the unusual structural properties of its design, which has conjured comparisons to a honey dipper, a lollipop, a golf ball on a tee, and a pinpoint on Google Maps. Ingels’s office envisions a 70,000-square-foot spiral walkway that descends from a flat outdoor deck. Like their Danish Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, the structure leads visitors downward through a series of interstitial programs that flow one into the next: The observation deck seeps into the 100-seat bar area, which spirals into an exhibition space, retail space, and finally, a lounge and restaurant. It’s a clever way to push the spiral from a structural typology into the realm of rational programmatic device—Ingels compares it to the Guggenheim. "Like the monsoons, the haboobs and the mountains of the surrounding Arizonian landscape, the pin becomes a point of reference and a mechanism to set the landscape in motion through the movement of the spectator," he adds.
Public reactions run the gamut from snarky (who wants a better view of Phoenix?) to sensible (how the hell do you cool this thing in the summer?). But Thorne says such reactions are to be expected, adding that "we’ve had 50 years to get used to the Space Needle." The real question is one of economics. Phoenix’s budget has shrunk dramatically since 2008, and a successful tourism destination like an observation tower could be a major financial salve. On the other hand, the effectiveness of the so-called Bilbao Effect, which correlates urban renewal with destination architecture, is being increasingly criticized as an urban legend. We’ll have to wait and see—for now, Novawest is hoping for a 2014 groundbreaking.