Endangered Architecture


Designer builds models of unappreciated buildings

By Anthony Broadman

Dirk Arnold wants to save Modernist architecture from modern America.

In his Downtown studio, cubist building facades and machined aluminum Montgomery Ward door handles are relics from architecture's gold-plated age. He shows off a "C" and an "N" from an old Loft Cinema sign like they're Pompeian clay tablets.

These kitschy remnants of a now-disassembled architectural school litter the studio where Arnold works.

A 37-year-old multimedia designer by trade, Arnold is preserving the postwar architecture of Tucson by modeling it in framed shadow boxes with paper, plastic and glue.

"I just have this thing for the '50s- and '60s-kind of glamorous, Modernist stuff that everybody hates and has hated for a while," Arnold said in his studio. "But soon it will all be gone. I'm trying to grab up whatever little bit I can."

So far, the little bit that Arnold's Endangered Architecture project has grabbed is the Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Company building at the corner of East Sixth Street and North Seventh Avenue.

Driving by its hulking asymmetrical facade, and the understated functional décor of its loading dock, you might not notice its brilliance. In fact, even if you stop and really look at the beige building, you might not be moved. But Arnold was.

"The elements of the Tucson Warehouse and Transfer were the loading docks, with the art deco awnings and the red stripes in the middle," he said.

"For years before I ever thought about doing this, I thought that would be a great model railroad building."

When Arnold was laid off from his multimedia design job last year, he re-evaluated his professional future.

He had a taste for old buildings and an architecture degree that he'd never used.

"It dawned on me," he said. "I've always known it, but the only reason I went to architecture school was because I liked to build the little models."

Talk about using your degree.

Tucson Warehouse and Transfer was his first modeled building. He's now at work on three identical models of the Loft Cinema, which he hopes will attract buyers interested in owning a piece, albeit miniaturized, of history.

Arnold may be just in time; the Loft is slated for a major makeover, perhaps within the year.

"We hope to make it a little less of an ugly block of concrete," said Peggy Johnson, executive director of the foundation that owns the Loft.

It's hard to argue with Johnson when she describes the "post communist bloc" look of the Loft.

But for Arnold, the gray massif comes from an era when architecture was less homogenized. Now "there's a Walgreen's on every corner."

The Loft project is part of a series of models that Arnold plans to make of Tucson theaters.

This mild obsession with preserving widely unappreciated buildings for posterity may have been born of Arnold's early years. "I'm originally from Michigan - where I used to watch Detroit deteriorate," he said.

He feels like a native Tucsonan, though, he said. And he plans to stay, "unless it gets too depressing because all the neat stuff that was here when I got here is gone."



Dirk Arnold

"The only reason I went to architecture school was because I liked to build the little models."

Renée Sauer / Staff
Dirk Arnold works on one of three identical models of the Loft Cinema he's making.


from the
MAY 3, 2003


Copyright Endangered Architecture - Dirk J. Arnold