When it comes to the $94.5 million Mesa Arts Center — now seven weeks away from opening its five art galleries — it seems one person’s eye candy is another’s eyesore.
Temporary chain-link fencing still surrounds the MAC complex — a tightly packed, postmodern amalgam of public space, visual arts galleries, classrooms and theaters on seven acres at the downtown crossroads of Main and Center streets — preventing passersby from wandering in. But onlookers from the street have strong opinions of the center and its radical, polarizing exterior design.
There are those who love it.
"I can’t wait for the fences to come down so I can have lunch there," says Crista Cloutier, director of Segura Art, a gallery that neighbors the center. "It doesn’t look like anything else."
There are those, like two students from the Heritage Academy charter school across Center Street from the center’s box office, who hate it:
"It’s bizarre. It looks mismatched," says Lucy Harrel, 17. "I wasn’t too sure about the green and orange. It’s like throw-up."
"It doesn’t look too hot," says Colton McKnight, 17. "It’s like, ‘Aww, your levels are off.’ "
And there are those willing to give it a chance.
"It’s very modern in an old town," says Greg Bates, who sells hot dogs from a cart on Main Street. "So far, it looks like it’s going to be really nice, lots of open space."
It’s hard not to have an opinion on the center’s exterior appearance. Sweeping, dramatic angles. Walls cantered against straight ones, suggesting they’re either sinking into the terra firma or rising from it. Jagged white sails jutting from the back, beckoning in. The harshness of concrete made whimsical by dipping it in vibrant, solid colors and punching out playful peepholes. Waves of metallic pergolas. Expanses of pristine glass that invite people to look within.
"Usually art buildings tend to be over the top. This one is nice," says Wayne Snyder of Phoenix, walking through downtown Mesa in mid-February with his girlfriend, Lindsey Hicks.
Hicks, a Mesa resident, likes the center’s aesthetic. "I think it’s very welcoming because it’s open," she says.
But MAC officials might have their work cut out for them when it comes to attracting people to the arts center, if Michael Niles is any indication. The 16-year-old’s school, the charter New Samaritan High School, sits on the northwest corner of Sirrine and First Avenue, looking onto the business end of the complex. He says he doesn’t know what the building is, though he does think it’s cool-looking.
"It looks like a college," Niles says. When he’s told what the center is, he says, "Whoa. That’s just for art?"
Michael Tingley, principal architect for BOORA Architects in Portland, Ore., which designed the arts center, says he expects opinions on the center to fall sharply on both sides of the love it/hate it spectrum when the art galleries open to the public April 22. (The complex’s four theaters open in September.)
"I don’t think anyone will be neutral," he says. "There will be people who love it, who are energized by it. I suspect there will be a few people who hate it. I think it’s better to have something that provokes those reactions than have it not be noticed at all."
Arizona State University architecture professor Max Underwood, touring the Mesa Arts Center at the Tribune’s invitation, divines a spirit of drama about the outside appearance of the arts complex that parallels what’s going to take place inside the MAC’s theaters.
"It’s the temple that has been opened, inverted," he says, standing midway between the center’s theater spaces, classrooms and arts galleries below. "Cities are trying to return to the theater of life, and the way these buildings are broken up to make a public space, it creates that sense."
Underwood coos over the complex’s multiple areas that offer what the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix calls in its building "temporary places of refuge" — areas for people to gather, sit and relax without obvious furniture-like benches. "You can’t sit at a bench and play checkers with someone," he says.
Here, an oversized lip of a fountain can seat people with legs crossed; large stairs become picnic areas.
"It’s kind of an impromptu place for life to happen," he says. "There was a lot of thought about places of repose and places of action."
What negatives he sees in the architectural design of the center are largely concessions to safety.
"Anywhere else, you would go, ‘No way,’ " Underwood says, pointing to the safety tower, "but here it’s theater, so we accept it."
The center’s designers wanted to base their work around Arizona’s geology and landscape, hence the dominant colors, like blue for sky, green for cactus and red for desert flowers. Underwood sees that reflected in the mix of organic materials like trees and foliage along with the inorganic feel of concrete, metal and glass.
"If you drive out into the desert," he says, "you’ll see busted rock and rusted beer cans and rusted cars. The metal doesn’t go away. It’s authentic."
NICKNAMING THE MAC
There’s a long tradition of distinctive buildings developing nicknames once they’re finished and the public can view them with a more abstract eye.
Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles earned the nickname "Sparkling Artichoke" shortly after it opened in 2003. That same year, the skyscraper 30 St Mary Axe in London earned the nickname "The Erotic Gherkin."
It’s still too early to tell whether people will christen the Mesa Arts Center with a nom du guerre, but passersby and observers have offered their own interpretations.
Many see the center’s white sails against the periwinkle blue Ikeda Theater and think "ship" — whether that’s the oceanic or space variety.
"I mean, look at the sails on that thing!" McKnight says.
"It certainly has an aquatic feel," says Cliff Smith, a Little Rock, Ark., native and art student in Mesa visiting his sister.
Cloutier says she thinks the arts center "looks like it dropped from the sky."
Some onlookers asked to conjure abstract impressions of the center were struck by the center’s dramatically canted walls and came to a startling comparison: The fallen World Trade Center.
"It looks like the Twin Towers — wham, wham," says Hicks, looking at the center from its western face.
Echoes Niles, "That building" — he points to the back of the Ikeda Theater — "looks like it’s going to fall."
But it’s Underwood who offers up the most compelling basis for an abstract nickname. He says the center’s creatively voyeuristic qualities — square peepholes in the cement, places to peer in on classes, walls of glass that he says will make people think of plasma-screen TVs — add up to make the center resemble a high-tech, high-concept ant farm.
If opinions are polarized on the Mesa Arts Center’s radical design, at least there’s a consensus on what kind of impact the center will have on downtown Mesa.
City planners hope the center will spark a chain reaction of development in the area, including much-needed dinner-hour restaurants and new housing, that will better fit in with the center’s aesthetic.
Whether those businesses would be willing to submit their architectural design to the same slings and arrows in the court of public approval the center is facing — well, that’s entirely another matter.
Sitting at the reception desk of the Mesa City Plaza, security guard Della Cabral looks out at the center from the same view she’s had of the construction site since 2002. She says she likes that the center doesn’t quite fit in with its environs.
"It’s different, sure," she says. "But I think we need different. We need diversity. We could have stuck with the same decor as downtown, the older style, but it’s something unique.
‘‘Isn’t that what art is all about?"