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Colorful Architecture of Southern Arizona

Updated on August 19, 2014

Many Different Traditions

Southern Arizona is a rich and colorful place, with many different types of architecture. The Hispanic community likes to build homes and other buildings that are painted in vivid, contrasting colors. The photo on the left is an example. I don't know who owns this house, but this is the type of thing I am talking about. We also have some architecture from way back when, some Spanish mission architecture, architecture by famous architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri, and many other interesting things.

I include photos of some of the wonderful murals that have been painted in southern Arizona.

All photos are mine.

Brightly Colored Buildings

I don't remember where I got the photo below.

Notice that it is painted with a deeply saturated color. There is a ceramic gourd-shaped wood stove in the patio. The window on the left is outlined in Mexican tile. A person can cross over the border and buy that tile in open-air markets or small stores in Nogales (though with the current problems, I wouldn't advise it).

This house is in my neighborhood. Though it is difficult to see in this photo, there are many bright and cheerful little decorations and other touches here and there.

This really does look very much like an hacienda.

El Mercado

Colorful Market

Located in downtown Tucson, El Mercado has many little shops. It is brightly colored throughout.

I think these are apartments, but I'm not sure.

I think these are offices.

This is a retaining wall just outside of El Mercado. If I recall correctly, the artist is a man who used to study taekwondo with me.

Doors, etc.

At least one artist in Tucson sells colorful greeting cards at Whole Foods, with photos of colorful doors. So one day I decided to see if I could find some of these. I think I barely scratched the surface, but I found plenty of interesting things to photograph. The location of most of these is in a residential area just south of downtown Tucson.

This image is from a different part of town, but I am putting it here because it fits in. This is the front door of the restaurant La Parilla Suiza. The name of the restaurant means "The Swiss Mill". They serve Mexico City cuisine, with lots of Swiss cheese. They have the best salsa in town by far. They have a mild salsa called Pico de Gallo (beak of the rooster), which consists of little chunks of raw tomato, onion, jalapeño peppers, and cilantro (coriander). Then they have green salsa made with tomatillos. Tomatillos are green tomatoes that grow in a papery skin. The hottest salsa is a red salsa. Fresh corn chips and salsa are complimentary with the meal.

Decorations from the same neighborhood

People also like to decorate their walls.

In this picture, you can faintly see the famous Man in the Maze, a traditional Diné (Navajo) design, depicting a man in the center, and a maze that leads to the outside.

This is a tile mural on the street side of a wall next to a parking lot belonging to another Mexican restaurant.

This is the "Roadrunner Express", outside a home. The wall has mosaic tiles in it. The cactus is real.

Some people find some VERY interesting things to decorate their buildings. Get a load of this airplane tail with a door cut into it!

As far as I know, this is just a bunch of condominiums in the neighborhood. You're looking at a string of garages, all painted different colors.

The other side of the street:

I leave you with another colorful door.

Same Neighborhood

Different style architecture altogether

These homes are in the same neighborhood as the colorful doors, south of downtown Tucson. There are quite a few homes designed like these.

Other Traditional Architecture

This is the mess hall for the old Fort Lowell, in Tucson. Notice on the right of the door, there is a string of chilis. These were often used outside a doorway as decoration, and they could then be used to season food. They were very durable. Notice the shadow on the wall made by a Prickly Pear cactus.

There are many such historic buildings in the area.

County Courthouse

downtown Tucson

This is also done in the same Spanish Renaissance style that you see in many buildings. The dome is covered with ceramic tile. This contains courtrooms, and the offices of the assessor, treasurer, and recorder.

Other Old Houses

This rock house is located at the base of South Mountain in Phoenix. There are a number of these scattered around, some in poor repair. I used to have one in my neighborhood, before they tore it down to make a filling station.

Many old houses were made of adobe, and because of the thickness of the walls, they required no cooling in summer, and virtually no heating in winter. These were often covered with a roof that had a ceiling supported by saguaro cactus ribs. I will post a photograph of that sometime.

Castle

There are a couple of buildings in the style of a castle scattered here and there. If I recall correctly, this one is on top of a hill not far from Colossal Cave, east of Tucson.

If I'm wrong, I'll let you know where it really is, and put a picture of THAT castle here.

Biosphere II

North of the Santa Catalina Mountains, which in turn are north and east of Tucson, is a fascinating place called Biosphere II. Originally it was financed by an eccentric man, and operated a lot like a religious cult. The purpose was to produce a hermetically sealed greenhouse that would contain several different climates of the world, and in which people would live for a period of months or years, completely sealed off from the world. As it turns out, they had problems, and had to pump in air for awhile. When it comes to wanting to plan a space habitat at LaGrangian point L5 in the lunar orbit, they have a ways to go. After awhile, they sold this to a developer, who appointed Columbia University to manage it, which in turn sold it to the University of Arizona. It is open to the public. It is now known as Biosphere 2. Biosphere 1 is the Earth.

This is the main greenhouse.

The air pressure was equalized by means of two "lungs" which contained large diaphragms that could move up and down, to match the air pressure outside. The photo below is one of the tunnels that leads to the lungs.

The main complex:

Modern Architecture

Modern architecture has its place in southern Arizona. This is a bank. Notice the sculpture which is an integral part of the building.

Church

This church, originally built for the Methodists, has a hyperbolic paraboloid roof. I am told that the reason for the shape is partly related to the fact that there is a pipe organ inside, and this shape accommodates the pipes. The church currently belongs to a nondenominational congregation.

Tucson Mall

The largest mall in town. It has two stories. This is an interior shot.

Benedictine Sanctuary

This building, in the style of Spanish mission architecture, is located in midtown Tucson.

Tia Elena

This is a sculpture that was fixed onto a former Mexican restaurant by the name of Tia Elena (Aunt Elena in Spanish). The face is a little hard to see because of the tree. She is looking down at her hands, and there is a small bowl in each hand. She has very long eyelashes.

Unfortunately, the building was sold to an antique dealer, who took out the marvelous eagle on the corner before I got a picture of it.

Downtown Tucson

The first image is of an art gallery called Hohokam Gallery. The gecko image on the gate is a common decoration. Geckos are said to represent longevity and good luck.

The mural is just south of downtown. The style is a modern Aztec style.

4th Avenue

4th Avenue, just north of downtown Tucson, has two annual festivals called street fairs. This is a mural on one of the buildings, and the children were attending the street fair.

Flower Shops

There are several flower shops scattered throughout Tucson that have wonderful murals on the side. This is one of them.

Old Barn

If you like old, dilapidated buildings, there are plenty of those around, too. This one is on Old Spanish Trail, on the road to Colossal Cave.

A Little Bit of Switzerland

There were two major forest fires in the Santa Catalina Mountains. The second, the Aspen Fire, destroyed more than 200 homes in Summerhaven, the little town near the top of Mount Lemmon. People collected insurance money and rebuilt. Some of the houses up there are virtual mansions, and remind me of the homes in Switzerland (minus the decorations). Here is an example of one such home:

The vantage point is from the Inspiration Rock picnic grounds.

There are plenty more homes like that up there, some with the A-frame steep roofs designed to keep snow from collecting. Why so many people rebuilt with wood is a total mystery to me. I wouldn't.

Jerry Hall, sculptor

The late Jerry Hall, sculptor, made a lot of funky figures out of found objects, mostly old car parts. He put many of them in his yard, located north of the University of Arizona in Tucson. After he died, just recently, many of them have been distributed and now decorate things like small traffic circles in neighborhoods. Here is a small sample of his work.

I got to talk to him once. He was an interesting character, full of happiness and fun.

Chinese Cultural Center

The Chinese Cultural Center in Phoenix is designed in traditional Chinese style. Alas! The recent one built in Tucson has no real interesting architectural characteristics.

Notice the traditional moon gate in the garden. The garden runs around two sides of the complex.

A Chinese lantern under the open roof.

Architectural detail.

More Local Details, Tucson

Somewhere downtown:

There are many fine desert artists who do paintings like this one.

I have seen painted horses like this one in various locations in Tucson. I guess that's what we paint here instead of cows. This one lives at the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

Notice the Indian symbols on the horse's body. Different horses have different themes.

Dome Homes

Tucsonans sometimes build some rather different and interesting homes. We have several geodesic dome homes in our neighborhood, and a circular home (the floor plan is a circle). This particular dome looks intriguing to me; it must be cool inside with that pure white insulating covering.

Taliesin West

Taliesin West was the western residence and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright. It is located near Phoenix. Here are two photos of his buildings.

He had built a small auditorium on the property, which was very narrow from side to side. There was a stage in the front, and he kept a Knabe piano on the stage. Because the piano would have taken up the entire stage, he built a hole in the wall to put the back of the piano. The sides were at weird angles, so that they would reflect the sound out to the audience. I got to play that piano. :) The sound was wonderful!

Paolo Soleri

Paolo Soleri is an Italian architect who moved to Arizona and established himself here. He was born in 1919. He also designed bells.

There are two communities that he founded, one in the Phoenix area, and the other in the middle of nowhere north of Phoenix.

These four photos are from Cosanti, the one in the Phoenix area. Notice that there are workshops, where artists can come, and they are quite interesting in design.

This image shows the ceiling in the gift shop.

Soleri Bells, outside the gift shop.

Architectural detail.

Arcosanti

I don't believe anyone lives in Cosanti, but there are numerous artists, architects, and students living and working in Arcosanti. The idea was to establish a utopian community to demonstrate it can be done. Unfortunately, there was never a really large sum of money to establish anything of any size. Still, Arcosanti is impressive.

The sculpture at the entrance to the grounds.

More Soleri bells. These bells were made by the residents in the two communities.

Part of the visitor's center.

These are stairs leading from the buildings down the hill. There is a working area there, and further down the hill, in the valley, they grow food for the community. If you get there during normal business hours, they charge you admission and they feed you. Because we got there after 5, they let the two of us wander around freely, but we didn't get anything to eat. We spent some time just chatting with them.

Oh how I would love to have tasted those grapes! They were growing next to one of the apartments.

This is a screen door on one of the apartments.

This is one of the apartments.

This is a covered amphitheater that was under construction, but still in use.

There was a concrete floor covered by an arched roof, where they had small gatherings. These two photos show this, along with the painted decorations inside.

The day we were there, there was a forest fire in the distant mountains to the east. There are wooden stairs to the top of this building, and residents had gone up there to watch the fire. One man had an old reel-to-reel movie camera, and was filming it.

Street Wall Decoration

It has become fairly common to put decorations on retaining walls next to streets. This is partly done to prevent graffiti. The streets are next to hills that needed to be retained by a wall. This is more common in foothill locations, because there are many hills. I found this decoration the other day on Craycroft north of River, just outside Tucson. I include closeups of details so you can see the wonderful color textures in the tiles. They're almost like stained glass, just not transparent.

I think the artist's idea was to present a stylized depiction of agaves, a type of succulent. That's what they remind me of, anyway.

Your Comments Eagerly Anticipated

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    • Charito1962 profile image

      Charito Maranan-Montecillo 3 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      Interesting architectural designs! Thanks for sharing.

    • smine27 profile image

      Shinichi Mine 3 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      I could spend a whole weeks just visiting these places.

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 3 years ago

      Wow, there is certainly a variety of shapes, colours and building styles in this neck of the woods. I think the Maya migrated into this area after their lands were devastated by drought and lack of trees. The Aztecs certainly helped influence the area as well. Really enjoyable reading about it. Thanks

    • Pat Goltz profile image
      Author

      Pat Goltz 4 years ago

      @wynandtruter lm: You would be most welcome to visit, but I must warn you, if you wear out one pair of shoes, you won't want to leave. And the weather does get hot in the summer.

    • wynandtruter lm profile image

      wynandtruter lm 4 years ago

      @aesta1: I will also like to go, weather seems nice lol.

    • Pat Goltz profile image
      Author

      Pat Goltz 4 years ago

      @jayavi: You're welcome, and thank you. You gave me an idea.

    • jayavi profile image

      jayavi 4 years ago

      nicely decorated buildings and houses. You need to spend lot of money to complete a house with a lot of decorations. Enjoyed your lens got some nice ideas about decorations. Thanks for sharing.

    • Pat Goltz profile image
      Author

      Pat Goltz 4 years ago

      @aesta1: Thank you, and for the blessing! Then my Lens accomplished its intended goal. :)

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      These pictures really show Arizona well. I now want to see the place.