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Arizona is a layered cultural landscape composed of stark and inspiring natural features that have shaped the multiple cultural groups who have occupied this region for millennia, including Native Americans, Latinos, and European Americans. Like Arizona’s people, its buildings reflect distinct yet frequently blended traditions and express the layered values—environmental, cultural, technological, economic, and political—that define Arizona’s unique sense of place.

As part of the arid American West, Arizona is defined by a scarcity of water, extreme climate, and clear sky conditions that produce vast diurnal temperature variations. Geographically, the state is defined by three distinct regions. The Colorado Plateau occupies the northern half of the state and shares a common high plateau landscape with Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. This landscape is predominantly horizontal but is punctuated by dramatic geological towers, snow-capped mountains, pine forests, and deep canyons. The most famous is the Grand Canyon, carved by the patient flow of the Colorado River, which defines Arizona’s western boundary further downstream. A mountainous transition zone, which includes the Mogollon Rim, an escarpment over 200 miles in length, bisects the state topographically and climatically. To the south, the basin and range landscape is defined by scattered high mountain peaks (“sky islands” rising up from the desert floor) and river valleys—the Salt, Gila, San Pedro, and Santa Cruz—that have provided a sustaining water supply for agriculture and human settlement for thousands of years. This southern region is also defined by the Sonoran Desert biome, characterized by distinct species of cacti (saguaro and organ pipe, among others) and rolling grasslands that represents only the northern tip of the vaster deserts of northern Mexico.

Like other western states, Arizona’s boundaries emerged through a political process (culminating in its 1912 statehood) that represented an understanding of neither geographic nor cultural landscape characteristics. Two of the state’s boundaries—the 109th meridian on the east and the 37th parallel on the north—intersect to create an arbitrarily defined place, the Four Corners, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah share a common point on the ground plane. Arizona’s southern boundary doubles as an international border that, too, was drawn on paper as a compromising land purchase from Mexico. As a consequence of these arbitrary divisions of an otherwise fluid landscape, Arizona contains a culture of transborder communities—Native American, Hispanic, and Mormon—that represent historically connected, but politically divided populations. Today’s political landscape is also defined by another characteristic common in the American West: nearly half of Arizona’s land is occupied by Native American reservations or is under public ownership and management, including national and state parks, forests, recreational lands, and military bases.

The cultural history of Arizona is a study of migration and adaptability to the desert environment that continues today. Beginning in 8,000 BCE, native peoples roamed, settled, and existed migratory lifeways throughout the region. They eventually coalesced into three major cultural groups: Ancestral Puebloan (formerly Anasazi, c. 100–1300 CE) on the Colorado Plateau, Mogollon (200–1450 CE) in the mountainous transition zone, and the Hohokam (300–1450 CE) in the Sonoran Desert, each with complex settlement patterns and building traditions. Beyond the iconic cliff dwellings, kivas, and great houses, perhaps the most enduring legacies of these early master builders are the Hohokam’s technologically complex water systems that controlled and diverted the desert’s most precious resource; many of these systems are still used as conduits in Phoenix, the most quintessential of twentieth-century cities.

By the time the Spanish arrived in what is now Arizona in the seventeenth century, the vast native population centers had diminished (most likely due to pressures wrought by environmental degradation). Yet today, the state has one of the country’s largest Native American populations, including members of the Hopi, Diné (Navajo), O’odham, and Apache tribes, among others. The greatest Hispanic presence is found in southern Arizona along the Santa Cruz and San Pedro rivers. Here, missions, presidios, and frontier communities reflect the ambitious social, cultural, economic, and political elements of the Spanish colonial enterprise that lasted in the Americas through the nineteenth century. The Spanish introduced new settlement patterns and building technologies, including the ubiquitous sun-dried adobe brick as a mainstay construction material. In contrast to the native use of puddled mud, adobe bricks are molded, dried, stored, and are transportable. This permitted European-inspired construction typologies, including vaulted and domed roof systems, which dramatically transformed the scale of Arizona’s architectural landscape.

Despite Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, many of its northern frontier towns, such as Tucson, remained unchanged until the Mexican–American War (1846–1848), which brought the first Anglo-American explorers and surveyors westward. The war’s treaty ceded one-quarter of Mexico’s former territory to the United States, creating a new southern international boundary at Arizona’s Gila River (this action split the area that presently comprises Arizona, leaving southern Arizona as Mexican territory). The 1849 California Gold Rush brought thousands of people through Arizona, creating supply routes that quickly connected the land’s American and Mexican regions. In 1854, the Gadsden Purchase brought southern Arizona into the U.S. federal government’s sphere of influence while redefining the current international boundary 70 miles south of Tucson. Nonetheless, the region is still distinguished by its deeply rooted Hispanic character.

Two pieces of federal legislation had tremendous impact as engines of nineteenth-century development throughout the American West and in Arizona, specifically: the 1862 Homestead Act, which encouraged Anglo-American settlement, thereby “Americanizing” the newly designated (in 1863) Arizona Territory, and the 1877 Desert Land Act, which increased homestead allotments to 640 acres, creating an industry of land developers who speculated on the growth of towns throughout Arizona. These political instruments of American expansionism fueled rapid westward migration and the emergence of new economies, including Arizona’s five “C’s”: climate (tourism), cattle, cotton, citrus, and copper. While many of these industries existed in previous eras (cotton was grown by native peoples and cattle and citrus were introduced by the Spanish), the scale of production and the consequential transformation of the natural landscape created an ethic of environmental exploitation of what was perceived by many as an arid wasteland. Mining companies, funded by eastern capitalists, viewed the Arizona landscape as one of extraction in which they would erode mountains and excavate open pits in order to capitalize on a world market for copper. This stimulated a new urban typology—mining towns—many of which later became ghost towns when the mines were closed.

Arizona’s economy has always been dependent on water. Along the Salt River, in the mountains east of Phoenix, local and federal efforts created a system of dams to control water flow. In addition to preventing perennial flooding, they generated electricity for Arizona’s growing population and provided consistent water for an expansive agricultural industry that converted desert into productive farmland and urban settlements. Federal investment to satisfy Arizona’s water demands continued through the last decades of the twentieth century and culminated in the Central Arizona Project, in which Colorado River water is transported 336 miles in an open channel from Lake Havasu near Parker to Phoenix and Tucson.

American military forts, originally established to protect supply routes after the Mexican–American War, became critical in the suppression of native peoples as settling the American West became a political and economic priority. Many military posts were closed after the Apache wars of the 1880s ceased, and it was not until World War II that a new generation of military bases was established. This, in turn, spawned affiliated private-sector companies that firmly established defense as a vital industry in Arizona.

Essential to the movement of people westward were transportation systems, beginning with stagecoach lines that connected California and eastern cities with the Arizona Territory by the late 1860s. Railroad lines followed (beginning in 1877), which not only connected Arizona’s growing cities but also transformed them into regional commercial hubs and tourist destinations. The railroad brought social, cultural, and technological changes to Arizonans whose responses varied between denial and adaptation of the existing environmental conditions and cultural traditions. The cross-cultural vernacular, a built expression characterized by continuous street facades, hybrid building forms, and predominant use of local construction materials, was transformed and often replaced by the prevailing Anglo-American model of streetscapes with detached buildings, pattern book and revival architectural styles, and imported building materials. This trend “civilized” Arizona towns by replicating the built fabric of the eastern United States.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, Arizona became a destination for health seekers, tourists, and newcomers, as did many parts of the warm, arid American West that were suddenly accessible by railroad and (later still) the automobile. Boosters, tourist operators (such as the Fred Harvey Company), real estate developers, and publications (such as Arizona Highways) catered to tourists’ expectations of exotic landscapes and cultures by creating an romanticized image of the American Southwest that was expressed in everything from handicrafts and music to building styles and subdivision developments. These regionally inspired revival architectural styles (such as the Spanish Colonial Revival, popularized in the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego) were generalized versions of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spanish colonial and indigenous architectural models. This stylistic movement contributed to the “invention” of an American Southwest that never existed, but continues to dominate expectations of the region’s cultural identity today.

Mobilization during World War II and operations at Arizona’s key military bases introduced the region to thousands of service men and women who returned to the state for its mild climate, inexpensive living, and new employment opportunities following the war. Aided by an increasingly automobile-oriented culture, postwar residential development was characterized by low-density residential and commercial sprawl throughout Phoenix’s and Tucson’s increasingly urbanized desert basins. Like other states, Arizona’s postwar housing boom was greatly influenced by the emergence of federally insured housing loans provided by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The FHA required builders to follow design standards to ensure building value, and these standards dictated not only the construction materials and building processes, but also the basic house form. Cheap energy and the availability of air-conditioning systems expanded development in the southwestern desert, resulting in a generation of buildings and urban communities that lacked any consideration for the environmental factors that define the region.

In the mid-1950s, the interstate highway system enhanced Arizona’s connection to the rest of the country, as the railroad had done nearly a century earlier. It connected distinct farming and ranching communities with larger towns, but also bisected urban neighborhoods. This coincided with federally assisted urban renewal programs that attempted to address suburban flight and that promoted large-scale, clear-cut development in the urban cores of Tucson and (to a lesser extent) Phoenix. As in other states, the implementation of these policies and programs in Arizona eradicated traditional urban patterns and displaced multi-generational ethnic communities. It has taken a subsequent generation of experimentation in public-private partnerships, mass transit infrastructure, incremental mixed-use development, and the preservation of historic building stock to finally revitalize these urban cores economically, but even more time is required to heal the cultural wounds.

Arizona’s current architectural expression is caught between two competing movements: one continues the early-twentieth-century trend toward superficial stylistic imagery of an identifiable “Southwestern” style easily promoted in today’s consumer market. The other aims to define a new vernacular that is responsive to local conditions of both climate and culture. Arizona has always been a destination for those with an independent spirit who sought inspiration from the unique qualities of place to create distinctive architectural expressions, including pioneers like Mary Jane Colter and Judith Chafee, visionaries like Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri, and native sons like Bennie Gonzales. Their work, whether traditional, modern, or regional created a legacy of place-based experimentation that has informed generations of design professionals in Arizona, including those in practice today. While this contemporary so-called “Arizona School” is not nostalgic, it does not adopt a modernist stance that rejects past precedence; it is creating a new paradigm based on time-tested principles of critical regionalism, which embraces an authentic response to both place and time.

For millennia, Arizona’s cultural groups have used architecture to project their values on the natural landscape. As exposure to other civilizations increased, cultural, technological, economic, and political forces began to supersede the environmental determinants that had defined the earliest settlements. Today, Arizona’s layered cultural landscape is better understood as a balance of comprehensive values requiring a responsible architectural response and stewardship to sustain its unique sense of place for future generations.


Cheek, Lawrence W. “The Making of the Arizona School.” Architecture 91, no. 5 (May 2002): 88-95.

Elmore, James, ed. A Guide to the Architecture of Metro Phoenix. Layton, AZ: Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., 1986.

Hollengreen, Laura, and R. Brooks Jeffery, eds. Cross-Cultural Vernacular Landscapes of Southern Arizona: A Field Guide for the Vernacular Forum. Minneapolis: Vernacular Architectural Forum, 2005.

Luckingham, Bradford. Phoenix: The History of a Southwestern Metropolis.Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989.

Nequette, Anne, and R. Brooks Jeffery. A Guide to Tucson Architecture.Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002.

Patterson, Ann, and Mark Vinson. Landmark Buildings: Arizona’s Architectural Heritage. Phoenix: Arizona Highways Books, 2004.

Sheridan, Thomas E. Arizona: A History. Rev. ed. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012.

Sonnichsen, C.L. Tucson: The Life and Times of an American City. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.

Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Works Projects Administration in the State of Arizona. Arizona: A State Guide. New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1940.

Writing Credits

R. Brooks Jeffery and Jason Tippeconnic Fox

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