Courtesy BIG

A honey dipper-shaped observation tower inches one step closer to reality.

Last week, the City of Phoenix issued a broad request for proposals soliciting “Entertainment and Tourism Attractions” for the downtown area. After months of unofficial support for a massive honey-dipper shaped observation tower that’s been floated by developer Novawest and BIG, the international design firm headed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingles, Phoenix is signaling its willingness to take this idea seriously.

Known for its audacious designs and for what they call “hedonistic sustainability”—like the waste-to-energy plant that doubles as a ski slope that recently broke ground in Copenhagen —BIG has put forth what it’s pitching as a reboot of the iconic twentieth-century urban observation tower. They’re affectionately calling it “The Pin.”

North American cities have not bothered to put this sort of architectural typology up for decades. Viewed as things of the past and overshadowed by development models closer to street level, people just stopped imagining them as viable. “The Pin” just may change all this.

Courtesy BIG

Novawest, the developer who brought the concept to the city, solicited designs from five international firms. They ultimately selected BIG. “Bjarke’s enthusiasm and BIG’s response really won us over,” says Jay Thorn, principal at Novawest.

The tower would rise on a tube of reinforced concrete, culminating in a vertigo-inducing open-air sphere containing flexible spaces for observation, recreation, retail, and exhibition functions within its spiraling structure. The lower hemisphere is slated for restaurants.

At 430 feet (roughly 39 stories), it would be the second-tallest structure in Phoenix. It could have gone higher were it not for airspace restrictions due to flight paths in and out of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport.

Still, the question remains: Why on earth would Phoenix, a city more often associated with sprawl and average high temperatures in the summer over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, want an open-air observation tower?

“Architecturally, there was really nothing in Phoenix that says, ‘Wow that’s Phoenix!’ so we felt like there was space for something really unique,” says Thorn. “We’ve had a number of meetings with the director of Phoenix’s Department of Community and Economic Development, the mayor, the city manager, and the city council and there has been widespread enthusiasm. It took six months to align all the interests. “

Courtesy BIG

“The idea for a tower was 50 percent inspiration and 50 percent accident or luck,” he says. While working on a project in Seattle, they had the chance to get to know the people who run the Space Needle.  “The Space Needle development model is a fifty-year success story,” says Mr. Thorne. ”When we looked at the demographics and economic potential of Phoenix compared to Seattle we realized the Space Needle concept could work and that it could potentially be even better.”

Phoenix seems to agree with this assessment. Mayor Greg Stanton says he’s excited about the possibility of a new point of interest in the city. “It would be privately funded, and the more we can have private projects that advance our community's interest the better,” he adds.

“Over the past few months, I’d say the possibility of this thing getting built has gone from 10 percent to 50 percent,” says Dave Roderique, CEO of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership. “Though initially we were very skeptical about this unusual proposal, as a model of economic development it makes sense for Phoenix.”

Novawest wants those odds to get to 100 percent as soon as possible: “We’d like to have it up for the 2015 Superbowl,” says Thorne.

Courtesy BIG

One factor that increased The Pin’s chances was the proposed site within the courtyard of the Arizona Science Center. “There was some really good synergy with them from the beginning,” Thorne says of the Science Center Board of Directors. “They were saying how people have a hard time finding them. Well, that wouldn’t be a problem anymore.”

The RFP opens the door to alternative proposals from other developer-architect teams, who now have just a little under 30 days to respond. For now, it looks like “The Pin” has the advantage.

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