Architect’s Perspective: Concrete Innovations in Arizona
Doug Sydnor, FAIA
Concrete is not only a long-lasting material; humans have also used it for a long time. Its origins are a concrete-like material used in the 4th century B.C. in southern Syria and northern Jordan. The Roman Empire improved concrete and used it to build revolutionary designs of structural complexity and dimension, such as the Colosseum in Rome and the Pantheon, the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. After the Roman Empire collapsed during the 4th century A.D., the use of concrete became rare until the technology, and its workability, was redeveloped in the mid-18th century.
Concrete is a mix of coarse aggregate bonded together with fluid cement and water. The raw natural materials available for making concrete, including the aggregate, lime, and sand, are readily available in Arizona.
Since concrete is fluid, it can be molded into a wide variety of shapes and becomes a durable stone-like material. Over time various additives have been developed to improve its physical properties and/or finished material, and reinforcing materials stretch its structural capabilities. There are different methods of forming concrete, whether it is poured in place or offsite. Let’s explore some innovative uses of concrete in Arizona.
The 1906 Kingman Powerhouse was constructed to supply nearby mines with electric power for hoists and pumps. The Powerhouse, along with the Sante Fe Railroad Depot in Kingman that was built the same year, were some of the first poured-in-place concrete buildings in Arizona. The Tracy Engineering Company of Los Angeles designed the Powerhouse, which had 20-feet-high, 18-inch-thick walls, and measured 60 feet wide by 110 feet long. The completion of the Hoover Dam in 1938 and its inexpensive hydroelectric power put this oil-fired powerplant out of business.
This fine example of a purely functional and durable concrete structure was later used as a recycling center until Otwell Associates of Prescott in 1995 performed a sensitive rehabilitation. The original board-formed, cast-in-place concrete buttresses and walls are fully exposed and define this utilitarian yet iconic structure. A new metal roof to match the original was installed over the existing steel trusses. The building now houses the Kingman Visitor Center, Route 66 Museum, a café, and historical organizations.
Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned in 1949 to design the Southwest Christian Seminary as a Classical University in Phoenix, but it was not built. Wright’s widow, Olgivanna, later permitted the original plans to be used for the new First Christian Church at 6750 North Seventh Avenue in Phoenix. Completed in 1973, it used concrete and stone walls similar to the Taliesin West materials.
The sanctuary was enclosed by a series of poured-in-place, concrete tree-like fins and piers. Stepped profiles form each pier as it goes vertical and then becomes a shade canopy. The resulting form is quite sculptural and plays with the ever-changing shadows; the grouping appears to be an abstract orchard. The faceted Bell Tower was completed in 1978 and clad in architectural precast concrete panels similar to the main structure. In 1979, Taliesin Architects designed a new addition of a baptistery, choir loft, and administration wing.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jul/Aug 2021 issue, Vol. 10, No. 4.