Desert Developments

MOCA is turning an eye toward Tucson architecture with a series of lectures and exhibits

When architect Teresa Rosano was a toddler, her father made a house from the earth.

"My father took a year of weekends to build a house out of dirt," in what was then far Tortolita, Rosano told a forum on architecture last week at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

"When people talk about adobe, they think of traditional architecture. This house used traditional concepts--thick walls with thermal mass and shade to protect from the sun--but it was modern, of its time and place and circumstances. It didn't copy an older style. ... It was a modest structure in the desert, very much of its place. It literally grew out of its site."

Rosano and her husband, Luis Ibarra, who practice as Ibarra Rosano Design Architects, have won a number of awards for their work, which--like her father's house--is modern, yet sensitive to place. The gray-beige walls of their prize-winning Garcia residence in the Tucson Mountains, for instance, match the color of the desert floor, and the house's volumes of block "stack up a hill," clinging to the slope's natural curves. Its courtyards and zaguán--or central corridor--echo elements of traditional Sonoran houses. And while the architects do use contemporary materials like glass, metal and block, they "try to appropriate vernacular architecture."

This kind of thoughtful design is a rarity in Tucson today, agreed the forum participants. Architects Rick Joy, Christopher Domin and Wilson Peterson also spoke on the panel, discussing their favorite structures while covering a wide range of design issues affecting Tucson.

New Tucson houses are either out-of-control temples to consumption, foothills horrors that spread many thousands of square feet over the land, or one of multiple cogs in gigantic subdivisions. Unencumbered by any thoughts of good design, Tucson developers routinely mow down the desert, litter its barren remains with acres of cheap stucco and pink tile, and line their new, sterile streets with triple-wide garage doors. What's astonishing, said a former California developer in the audience, is that nobody is doing much to stop them.

"I see what developers are getting away with here, without any opposition, almost no battles," Tom Stark declared. "Does no one care? Builders are going to go this way unless the public forces them to do otherwise. In California, it's a battle over every development. As people get more organized, it's harder for the developers."

The forum, attended by 75 people, could be a first step. The first installment of a projected series of architectural lectures and exhibitions at MOCA under the rubric Design Lab, it was designed to raise consciousness about the ugly state of Tucson's built environment.

MOCA director Anne-Marie Russell said she had invited the four "brilliant architects ... to educate us." Like Stark, she noted that Tucson is "one of the most naturally beautiful places on Earth, but it's in danger of being overrun by big boxes and unfettered development."

The architects admitted that their profession has been lax in its civic responsibilities. Preoccupied with designing high-end houses for the rich, they don't do much to ward off the plague of cheesy subdivisions infecting the city's edges. Part of the problem is plain economics: Developers don't want to cut into their profit margins by employing architects who are serious about desert design. Normally, only the wealthy can afford architects. Rosano said that she and her partner intend to do something about that disparity.

"It is frustrating, not being able to do work for people without means," she said. "We are trying to do exactly that, to do affordable housing in Barrio Blue Moon."

Rosano and Ibarra have teamed up with their usual builder, Page Repp, and formed a company called Dreamspace to do smart design in the lower-income part of town near west Speedway Boulevard.

Architect Joy said it's easy for architects to be seduced by the experimentation that fat fees allow. Joy first won fame for his modest makeover of a couple of crumbling barrio dwellings into the sleek Convent Avenue Studios. Nowadays, he's being lionized internationally for beautiful, minimalist houses made of rammed earth, weathered steel and other innovative materials. Those houses, he explained in his slide show, are inspired in part by the protected spaces and massive walls of Arizona's slot canyons, and by the rusted tools long-ago cowboys left in the desert. They're colored in a canyon palette and capture desert light through windows large and small. And they don't come cheap.

"It's an interesting dilemma," Joy said. "The really important work is not in designing utopian houses for the rich, but it's enticing. I feel myself caught. Housing is such an important issue in the United States and in Tucson."

Several years back, he recalled, a dozen or so design professionals banded together as Civitas Sonoran, a high-minded group that aimed to educate the public. After a number of tours, exhibitions and at least one publication--on Judith Chafee, the late, great modernist of desert design--the group faded away.

"I was one of the founders," he noted. "We got too busy."

Domin, who teaches at the UA and is now architecture curator at MOCA, said Design Lab could serve as a replacement.

"This is on our watch," he said. "If we don't do something, who will?"

For his part, Domin--already co-author of a book on Paul Rudolph, an architect with a kinship to Chafee--is curating a show for MOCA to be called New Desert Architecture. And he's been studying Chafee's work, which still has much to teach Tucsonans struggling to live in a land of little water and much sun. Her renowned Ramada House, he noted, is a modernist building that essentially wears a hat. A monumental wooden ramada, based on Tohono O'Odham shelters, shades the house from the sun.

The architects hope to raise consciousness, but they cautioned against embracing the sort of design guidelines that the City Council has been debating of late.

"I don't think that rules will make developments better," Rosano said. More important would be looking at city rules in place right now that stifle original design. "We should try to figure out which roadblocks are stopping people from trying to do good design. Zoning tends to favor those types of developments."

Peterson, another UA architecture professor, agreed: "One of the troubling things is when architects try to get the 'ing' (innovation), they encounter roadblocks. With the large developers, the rules go out the windows."

Peterson spoke about Bisbee, where the "density and the difficulty of the terrain produced unusual architecture." Pedestrians rule on downtown streets so densely packed with buildings that the spaces in between are like outdoor rooms, he said. Tucson, with a downtown pockmarked by desolate open spaces, can take a lesson from the mile-high mining town.

"The quality of Bisbee's urbanity creates a sense that as a pedestrian, you're entitled to inhabit the space you're in," Peterson said.

Joy said Tucson has made mistakes downtown. The old Lerner's Building at Congress Street and Stone Avenue, for instance, "could have been a beautiful space," but was blocked up and mutilated for a switch hotel that never happened.

"We should give incentives to visionary planners," he said, to do something better.

An audience member worried aloud that planners keep talking about creating a "visual style" for Rio Nuevo, which just might end up being as dull as the seas of pink tile on the city's edge. The architects cautioned vigilance.

"Prescriptions like that are a disaster," said Joy, who is short-listed for the Rio Nuevo Science Museum project. "Unfortunately, that becomes the focus, because it is the easiest thing to do."