Tiny Buildings, Enormous Impact: Dirk Arnold’s Endangered Architecture

March 22, 2014 |

Dirk_ArnoldWhen local artist Dirk Arnold went to architecture school in the mid-1980s, he says it was because he wanted to build models. “But it turns out building models was the thing you did at the last minute in a panic in architecture school,” he says, and so he put models aside after graduation for a career in graphic design. When he picked them back up decades later, the soft-spoken Arnold quickly became one of Tucson’s strongest voices for historical preservation.

He arrived in the Sonoran Desert in 1996 by way of Ann Arbor, Mich., though given Arnold’s dedication to (and obvious love for) Tucson’s community treasures, you’d think he’d been here all his life. Like many local transplants it was the climate that ultimately roped him in, but his love for the mid-century modern buildings here had a hand in his decision to relocate to this pueblo in particular, he says. When he was laid off from his job with a local software company in 2002, Arnold decided it was time to completely reevaluate his day-to-day, and so once again, he started building.

Arnold built his first piece in the Endangered Architecture (EA) series in 2003: a miniature of the Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Building on Sixth Street east of Stone Avenue. He took a series of photographs of the building, stitched them together on Photoshop, and set to work recreating the building’s façade piece-by-piece out of matte board, balsa wood, and glue.

“The truck on the (Tucson Warehouse and Transfer) sign blew off during that process,” explains Arnold, “and that got me thinking about all of the endangered signs around town.” From there came the idea to recreate Tucson’s classic neon signs as refrigerator magnets and EA was officially in business.

Arnold says each shadowbox model in the EA series can take anywhere between a few weeks and several months to complete by hand and it’s easy to see why; his recreation of the Berkshire Shopping Complex alone measures roughly seven feet in length.

He calls them “elevation views popped out into three dimensions,” harking his finished products back to artistic presentation posters of old that were “meticulously rendered and painted” by the architects themselves before the industry transitioned to digital. Arnold’s minimalist approach to his miniatures is attributable to his personal sense of architectural puritanism: “No cars, no people, no plants,” he says with a distinct air of humility, “I left all of that off.”

Demion Clinco, Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation president, met Arnold in 2008 at the First Annual Miracle Mile Open House and Tour. Clinco and Arnold later served together on the committee responsible for amending Tucson’s sign code to incentivize the preservation of signs like those depicted on Arnold’s magnets. The interest in local neon created by the project, says Arnold, led to his first major public art installation—the towering “Gateway Saguaro” which illuminates the intersection of Oracle Road and Drachman Street.

Clinco, recently appointed to the state House to fill the seat vacated by Andrea Dalessandro, says that Arnold’s approach to local preservation was more artistic than policy-driven; a welcome and important angle with respect to the efforts of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation. “Using his remarkable artistic aesthetic and sensibility, (Arnold) is able to shine a light on our city’s historic resources in a way that no one else does,” says Clinco.

And you thought we were just talking about magnets and miniatures.

Though Arnold insists that his art is “not overtly political,” it is hard to deny the preservationist undertone of a moniker like “Endangered Architecture.” Still, the threats to Arnold’s beloved mid-century modern structures are real. In fact, two of the buildings represented in his current show at the Tucson International Airport Gallery—namely, the 1968 Levy’s Department Store at El Con Mall and the Berkshire Village Shopping Center formerly at Broadway Boulevard and Camino Seco—“have been demolished for Walmarts just in the last couple of years,” Arnold says. The push to widen Broadway Boulevard, he says, could bring down many more.

Ultimately, through his own contribution toward preserving our local architectural heritage, Dirk Arnold is providing our community with a number of classics all his own. And though it is perhaps an understatement, most Tucsonans would probably agree with Representative Clinco when he says of Tucson’s Master of Miniature, “We’re really lucky to have him.”

Lucky we are, indeed.

Dirk Arnold’s Endangered Architecture miniatures are on display in the Tucson International Airport Gallery (on the east end of the baggage claim area, 7250 S. Tucson Blvd.) through the end of March. The closing reception is on Saturday, March 22, 4 p.m.-7 p.m. Arnold’s magnets can be purchased on his Etsy store, or at EndangeredArchitecture.com.

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