Posted by on Feb 5, 2014

Respite, retreat, safe haven, home…

This was the implied program for a residence meant to represent progressive contemporary thinking grounded in the fundamentals of “mud and shadow.”

And we would add Patina. For this home, like the best of them, will age with a naturalness that speaks of the Desert itself: The gray sun-washed varnish of desert creosote, the bone-white bleached skeleton rib of a forgotten saguaro, and the line and shadow-play of the ocotillo.

This residence, not far from the original site of the lost Frank Lloyd Wright designed Pauson House, is the latest tour de force from one of the Valley’s most respected Modern Architects, Eddie Jones and Jones Studio.

And it’s magnificent in its restraint and scale.

For centuries the unique qualities of the Sonoran Desert have confirmed a precedent of living spaces grouped around a courtyard. It is this void, or left over space between enclosures, which define the “hacienda” diagram. This design embraces the void so successfully, it’s hard to know where the home starts and stops, so easily integrated is it to the site and nature.

The site slopes in three directions—it is a desert knoll. Linear forms, assuming they are long enough, will inherently emphasize the shape of the landscape by contrasting a level parapet with the sloping topography. But this can leave the design less than integrated if the focus is on a typical residential program along a single axis.

Fortunately the program included a lap pool. This linear permission slip completed the third topographic axis, and finds directional purpose in its alignment with the 6-million- year-old Papago Butte three miles away, and the centerline of the main entry door, a purposeful anchor to those who came before and, as a natural bonus, provides a focused and fantastic view!

Materiality defines this home as much as the site. Rammed Earth construction has a 1,000 year history in the southwest United States. Although ancient, its resistance to climatic forces, insulating superiority, structural capacity, and inherent, natural, undeniable beauty secures its relevance into the 21st century. It’s visual weight adds the necessary anchor, the permanence, that’s necessary to claim this site for the home as permanent and lasting. It is in many ways both the ancient and modern equivalent to Wright’s use of concrete and stone “Desert Rubble” construction.

Inside the rammed earth forms are equally expressive, with a geometry and occasional surprise in the form that’s allowed to interact with the owner in a closeness somewhat atypical of the material, but which adds a playfulness that lightens the home both visually and in spirit.

And the Modern Hacienda? So often we’ve seen the attempt to build around the courtyard, with separate modules of daily life extending along and out from an integrated center. And so often it fails. On this home however, the design is singularly and completely successful. Seamless flow from space to space and room to room make this home completely unique in that it truly allows an indoor-outdoor experience that actually handles the Arizona Climate.

“It is crazy to use wood in the desert.”

“Why? Because in one season, the summer sun will begin to eat it! But who doesn’t relate to the old barn, the wood ruin? There is beautiful honesty in relinquishing architecture to the uncompromising reality of nature!”
– Eddie Jones, Principal AIA

Deeply covered paths make for a natural walk to and from each space, each being succinctly disconnected from the center but at the same time connected around a court. It’s so natural you’ll find yourself in a another part of the home without remembering the exterior walk to get there.

But as much as the plan is interesting it’s the texture, light and shadow that define it. Most of the home is clad in untreated natural redwood. Battens and strips in a rhythmically aligned pattern that seem random but actually bring unity to the exterior. It’s the visual glue that brings the working pieces of the home together and, with time, will be what makes it begin to disappear from the eye.

We so often choose to no longer use wood in the desert, but mostly because our intense sun makes a mess of it. We are creatures of organization, and the naturalness and reality of carbon, time and sun is offensive to many an H.O.A. board member. But in accepting the inevitable, and the need over time to commit to its replacement, we can introduce a design element that’s been overlooked. Like the delicate char on historic Japanese wood structures, the “desert patina” that will overtake this natural material can be embraced as part of the protection of the material and the experience of living.

“It is crazy to use wood in the desert. Why? Because in one season, the summer sun will begin to eat it! But who doesn’t relate to the old barn, the wood ruin? There is beautiful honesty in relinquishing architecture to the uncompromising reality of nature,” Jones says.

If the intentions are sincere the architecture will get better. The owner clearly looks forward to the dignity of wrinkles and gray hair, and also, gray, wrinkled wood! Like the most collectable of antiques, even classic cars, the search for perfection in an unblemished surface is being discarded for the naturalness of age and the value of patina. The “soul” of the objects use.

Over time, the owner expects that the home will age, that the wood may warp and check. And many decades from now (who knows really?), the wood may need renewal. But isn’t that what makes this the ultimate “respite, retreat, safe haven, home”? A place where the home and it’s occupants can simply be themselves.