GCU 357: Social Geography Photo Essay 3

MGCU 357: Social Geography Photo Essay 3

The Infrared “Veil” of Tempe: “Imageability” as Defined by Heat

The intense central Arizona sun beat down on the streets, parking lots, buildings and sidewalks of downtown Tempe as if Helios’ son, Phaethon, had set the Earth on fire once more with his father’s golden chariot (Theoi.com). I wiped a bit of perspiration off my brow and pulled my heat-absorbing brunette hair back into a knot on the top of my head. As citizens of the Valley of the Sun, or, the Vale of Tempe, we deal and interact with heat on a daily basis. When it is absent, the repulsive reaction is extreme, for heat is the familiar and its sensations lie somewhere in the subconscious of Tempe residents. The subconscious quickly transforms into the conscious as the handle of the i5 Infrared camera is lifted to eye-level and suddenly the visible spectrum disappears and the wavelengths of the world of IR reveal themselves.

Susan Sargent touched on a study of place image by urban scholar Kevin Lynch (1960) in a chapter of her PhD dissertation (2002, p.174). Lynch coins the term “imageability” in his study, which is constituted of five visual elements that contribute to a strong sense of urban identity: paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks (Sargent, p. 175). Dr. Sargent goes on to discuss her own journey through the visible world of Tempe and provides a description of downtown Tempe in terms of Lynch’s five visual elements. With the thermal world gripped firmly in my hand, available to me with the single push of a button, I set out to explore and delve into the same five visual elements of Kevin Lynch*.


            An area of a city having some recognizable character is considered to be a city district (Sargent, 2002). Little Italy in Philadelphia and Hell’s Kitchen and the Theater District in New York are all examples of districts. Sargent points out that downtown Tempe itself is a district of its own since it is not big enough to be separated into multiple districts (2002).

Our IR group departed the ASU campus and headed north on Forest Avenue. The day was quite warm and the rays of the sun were relentless. We walked with no real direction or objective and found ourselves wherever there might be a tree or two to stay cool. We eventually wandered into an area with quite a lot of trees and saw a very strangely shaped building in front of us. It was the Tempe Municipal Building in the government area, which Sargent mentions as being the one location Tempe could designate as a district (2002). The upside-down prism was dark beneath the shade of the large trees. The mood touched on foreboding and the noise of the city seemed to dampen as we came closer to the complex. The IR image only heightens the feeling of disquiet (Figure 1).  A dark, cool gateway partially obstructs the view of the eerie scene beyond. The building that was so stark and so clearly defined in the shaded sunlight appears alien and veiled. The warm, bright path leading to the veiled prism captivates and beckons the viewer to move closer.

We meandered around the complex and took in the quiet and somewhat eerie atmosphere the district emanated.


Lynch defines a landmark as an element of the urban center that serves as a reference point and more meaningfully, “possesses some quality that is unique or memorable within a context and is easily identifiable” (Sargent, 2002). In the visible spectrum, our eyes are instantly drawn to downtown Tempe’s more obvious landmarks: Hayden (Tempe) Butte, the Victorian-style buildings on Mill Avenue and the Mill Avenue Bridge. Sargent directly quotes Lynch detailing that a landmark such as Hayden Butte is a “’distant landmark,’ one that is ‘visible from near and far, by day or night; unmistakable; dominant by size and contour; closely related to the city’s traditions’ (Lynch 1960, p.82)” (Sargent, 2001). As I pointed the camera north, the retained image is startling (Figure 2). The intense brightness of the sun across the landscape disappears. The sky is no longer the Southwestern bright blue that scatters the sun’s light, but is transformed into the cold, deep void we know space to be. Hayden Butte stands hot and proud and this image seems to accentuate Hayden Butte as quintessential Lynch landmark of urban identity. An image taken at a closer proximity is even more arresting. The Butte seems to have great size and prominence hovering over downtown Tempe (Figure 3).

Taking a sip from my water bottle, the group of us turned west, away from the government building complex and toward the downtown center of Tempe. We eventually came to an area of openness that was very quiet and most certainly had a lack of motion – a stillness.  We were drawn to an artistic feature that sat under the trees at the focal point of this open and quiet space. Two of the group took places on either side and once more the camera caught a snapshot of the ethereal thermal world. It wasn’t until I sifted through the images later that I realized how drawn I was to this particular image of the two group members on this artistic bench (Figure 4). After reading Dr. Sargent’s dissertation chapter, I learned that this small open space wasn’t, in fact, a space, but rather, a place. This is the Tempe landmark the Plazita de Descanso, or “little place of rest” (p.182, 2002). Even the artistic bench itself has an identity, “Greetings from Tempe.” As I write, I glance at the image on the page and I am unsettled. In the IR spectrum, it is impossible to tell what it is that lurks behind the group members. I feel as if the void between them is a passageway or an entrance to a celestial world. It also appears as if there are amorphous, cool figures lurking just behind the “veil” of the void, figures and shapes that are concealed in the thermal world. This particular image had a very spectral quality to it. The stark contrast of the heat of the living bodies and the non-discernable dark, cold figures hovering behind them causes a slight chill to course under my skin. This photo had me so absorbed that it compelled me to type “Plazita de Descanso” into my internet search engine. To my immense surprise, a 1995 Phoenix New Times News article entitled “Out of Their Trees” appeared as a search result. So it was that I read and learned the rich history of the “little place of rest.” I received another small shock to find out that Plazita de Descanso is in fact a significant landmark of downtown Tempe and a landmark that evoked controversy. The two-page article by Dewey Webb begins by detailing the origins of the park. It was donated to the City of Tempe by Olivia Birchett to honor her late husband, Joseph Birchett, who was a Phoenix lawyer (Dewey, 1995). The chill seemed to pass laterally through every millimeter of my skin and my heart beat a little faster when I read that Joseph Birchett had actually been murdered in his downtown Phoenix office by a disgruntled handyman who’d been dropped as a legal client (Dewey, 1995). It was also stated in the article that Olivia Birchett had also died. Perhaps the Birchetts are the nebulous figures in the void, revealed only by their heat. As I contemplate the path to the perhaps spiritual world beyond the veil in Plazita de Descanso, my thoughts wander to another visual element of Lynch: paths.


A path is a corridor, or main artery, along which people in the urban center move as they experience the city center, according to Lynch (Sargent, 2002). The central image of the city is usually construed through paths as they are obvious and recognizable features as well as being the most-often utilized of the visual elements (Sargent, 2002). I feel as if we occasionally take the paths of the city for granted. We expect cities and downtown areas to contain paths and usually always know when we’ve reached the town or city center due to the words “Main St.” plastered on to a green street sign.

The paths of Tempe include Mill Avenue and the Mill Avenue Bridge (Sargent, 2002). As our group ambled from the cool shade of the Plazita de Descanso toward 6th Street, we could already hear the hum of the traffic and the bustle of the downtown office lunch crowd strolling, chatting and laughing. Our first path, while not a major artery, led us past the Plazita and the small park towards the main street. Although the wide and winding path might not have had the potential to be a particularly interesting image in IR, I snapped a picture anyway. Almost immediately, the thermal world engulfed my senses once more (Figure 5). The photograph does not speak of the pleasant and up-beat lunchtime humming and buzzing of downtown Tempe. For me, it has the opposite effect. The photo strikes me as if I was caught in a very lonely and unsettled world, not knowing where the path would lead, let alone to a city center of bustling activity. As I experience the image, I see the large windows of the nearby building have flames erupting from them and the green and lush trees in the visible spectrum are suddenly transformed into a billowing, black cloud of smoke. This image depicts an incredibly different experience than the Vale of Tempe – the valley of “verdant walks” and “cooling shades.” This image is in fact almost violent in its thermal contrasts. A similarly lonely place in the thermal world, though not quite as turbulent, is depicted in Figure 6.

The turbulent world disappeared as the group finally made its way to the main path of Tempe – Mill Avenue. The cheery lunch mood of the crowd was omnipresent and even a few of the IR images, which seemed to cast a sinister shadow a few paces behind us, couldn’t cast a veil on the lively downtown atmosphere (Figure 7). This thermal image of Mill Avenue is particularly alive and I imagine the kinetic energy, or the rapid motion, of the atoms producing the heat of the image. The photo clearly depicts the warm feet of the crowd walking on the baking, glowing sidewalk. One of the crowd lifts his/her arm to indicate a direction or a point of interest. These lunchtime groups are clearly experiencing the city through the vibrant path of Mill Avenue. A couple more photographs display liveliness and motion, not through human activity, but through the trees and building facades that line the sidewalk (Figure 8). The leaves cast a warm glow, which radiates outward from the cool and somewhat moist bark of the trunk. The scorching building facades compete with the glow of the trees intensely while also providing a curtain of cool shade to the area directly beneath them.

It is made clear by these infrared images that the experience of the city by movement along paths parallels the experience of moving through the path of life. Life is lonely, unsettling and turbulent (Figure 4). At others, life is exciting and full of motion, motivation and spirit (Figure 5). And at times, life is in the in-between where a dark curtain or veil obscures what lies ahead.








“HELIUS : Greek Titan God of the Sun ; Mythology ; Pictures : HELIOS, SOL.”HELIUS : Greek Titan God of the Sun ; Mythology ; Pictures : HELIOS, SOL. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2013.

Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1960. Print.

Sargent, Susan. 2002.  The Urban Image of Mill Avenue. Chapter 4 in Main Street Meets Megastrip: Suburban Downtown Revitalization in Tempe, Arizona.  Doctoral dissertation, Arizona State University, Department of Geography.

Webb, Dewey. “Out of Their Trees.” Phoenix New Times News. Phoenix New Times News, 14 Dec. 1995. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.


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