Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page PRE-WEB ARCHIVES:
No. 28, Spring/Summer 1989
Desert Architecture

Three Architects' Approach to the Arizona Desert

by Robert Hershberger

" What is unique about this place that is Arizona? The climate, the light, the scale of the land, vast distances and vistas, a sense of adventure and pioneer spirit, a lifestyle that is friendly and casual."
--Will Bruder


(Back to top)
The American southwestern desert is a special place and calls for a unique architectural response. The University of Arizona College of Architecture has developed an international reputation for its specialized program of study emphasizing the design of appropriate built form within this arid lands context. That reputation has been created by unique individuals drawn to the desert to practice their architecture and share their knowledge and sensitivity of the desert with the students in the design studios.

Represented here are three of these architects and an individual work exemplifying their own unique philosophy and relationship to the desert in which they live, design, and build. Each is different in approach and offers a wealth of creativity in response to the insensitivity typical of much of today's current architecture.

Will Bruder (Platt Residence, Maricopa County, Arizona, 1977-82)

(Back to top)

Platt residence thumbnail
Thumbnail link to image of Platt residence, ~20K file.

For me, architectural regionalism is about creating a harmony and energy between a natural environment and a man-made environment. Regionalism is about creating an architecture that celebrates and integrates the elements of climate, landscape, and culture that are unique to a place. On one level, regionalism is about something small like a neighhorhood or a city, or maybe a place as big as a region like the Southwest. But for me, regionalism is about a person's responsibility not only to one's intimate sense of place but [to our] sense of... place in the world community in the time we are living. As an artist, I want to solve problems in ways that are timely to our cultural and technological maturity as a society, that "push the envelope" of perceived reality like breaking the sound barrier, and that are works of art that become timeless in the quality and substance of the solutions they represent.

What is unique about this place that is Arizona? The climate, the light, the scale of the land, vast distances and vistas, a sense of adventure and pioneer spirit, a lifestyle that is friendly and casual. A very open client attitude, a sense of tradition, but a flexible young place willing to make a bold statement about its specialness. These are all aspects unique to Arizona--yesterday, today, and in the future.

Our built environment has its roots in the land--Indian stonework, Spanish mud adobe, the simple architecture of the historic mining industry. We have two great architectural role models, Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri, who really understood and understand Arizona and the great region called "Earth," which they celebrated and celebrate in all their work. I am also very inspired by the often poetic simplicity and grandness of engineering feats exercised to harness this truly powerful place called "the desert." The Central Arizona Project canal under construction and an attempt at flood management on a desert river are both bold sculptures and statements of function and our time to learn from!

(Excerpt from Local Truths: Ideals and the Modifiers of Place!ASU Symposium, 1988)

Judith Chafee (Ramada House, Tucson, Arizona, 1980)

(Back to top)

Judith Chafee's ramada house
Thumbnail link to image of Ramada House, ~32K file.

As the air in the valley is warmed, it rises up the hillside and under the shade of the Ramada House. The use of a ramada, which allows the passage of air through it is ancient in this region. In this case, however, the scale is relative to huge shade trees that do not exist here. The house is in two parts: the shade structure and the masonry house, scaled to relate to its neighbors, pueblo-style houses of the thirties and forties. The column spacing of the shade structure is absolutely regular, the masonry forms are flexible and earth-hugging. Some of the now unreasonable mannerisms of the pueblo style, such as piling masonry on top of openings, have been eliminated. The intention of relating to the neighbors is born of politeness, not revivalism.

Here, then, with the ramada and the pueblo-considered masonry is a building easy to promote as new regionalism. Perhaps it is. Our regionalism, to have integrity and to do its job, which is to provide growth for those who use our buildings, has got to be NOW--everything we have learned that can contribute to the appropriateness of our solution in time and place.

(Excerpt from Art Space Magazine, Spring 1982)

Larry Medlin (Solar Oasis, Environmental Research Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, 1987)

(Back to top)
Historically, an oasis is a green and fertile area surrounded by aridity and barrenness that has been joint-ventured by humans and natural forces. A limited supply of water is carefully collected and used to generate and sustain vegetation, which often includes food crops. This tempers the impact of climatic extremes and creates a benevolent microclimate within which humans place buildings and develop habitable outdoor spaces.

The unique delicacy of the desert ecology is intimately linked to evaporation. In the desert more water is lost by evaporation than falls in precipitation. This results in limited vegetation, limited cloud cover, maximum solar radiation levels, and substantial diurnal swings. These unique characteristics of the desert ecology provide the basis for a way of building and living in the desert that can interact advantageously with the substantial variations in the presence of sunlight, wind, and water.

Reapplication of this ancient concept may be especially appropriate today. In an oasis-like microclimate, buildings can be designed to interact advantageously with the daily and seasonal variations of climate. The large diurnal temperature swing can provide the basis for an environmental control strategy in which the building envelope and surrounding landscape form a "selective filter" to take favorable advantage of the energy forces of nature. For the winter the building envelope is designed to collect and store solar radiation during the day. At night the envelope is closed to form an insulated blanket and the interior space is heated by re-radiated solar energy. For the summer, the process is reversed. On hot days the insulated envelope is closed, openings are shaded and the building is evaporatively cooled. At night the envelope is opened and ventilated to exhaust heat into the cooler, outside ambient air, and on the typical evening with limited cloud cover, for re-radiation of heat to the black body night sky. These processes prime interior spaces with coolness, which tempers heat buildup the following day. The design of a building envelope as a "selective filter" will facilitate opening the building to the exterior. During the frequent spring/fall periods of moderate climate conditions, summer evenings and/or winter days, this will enable direct climate interaction between indoors and outdoors.

(Excerpt from Arcus, Issue 6, 1984)

bar denoting end of article text

Author Information

(Back to top)
Robert Hershberger is a professor in the College of Architecture, The University of Arizona.

Credits and copyright information

Link to ALN home page Link to index page for back web issues Link to index page for pre-web issue archive Link to this issue's table of contents