by Anmol AhujaJul 15, 2021
Born in Texas and raised in Oklahoma in the 1950s, Eddie Jones was interested in suburban house floor plans published regularly then in women’s magazines – Ladies’ Home Journal, Redbook, and Good Housekeeping – that his mother subscribed. The houses he discovered on the pages of these magazines were very different from the one he lived in; they were modern – with a low-pitched roof and floor to ceiling glass. “You could see out. You could breathe. I imagined I would feel uplifted and free. Even as a child, I was naturally drawn to them, and I would try to guess – where in the floor plan were the photos taken. It was my game,” explains Jones. He was just six years old when his father bought the 26 volume set of Encyclopedia Britannica. The curious youngster looked at every single page in every book from A to Z, eventually getting to the W’s. It was Frank Lloyd Wright and his masterpiece, Fallingwater that caught his imagination – particularly on an emotional level.
Jones studied architecture at Oklahoma State University, but his education continues to this day, especially through his frequent travels all over the world. “Of course, I appreciate Modernism and the desire to make buildings as light and as transparent as possible – says Jones – but I am also influenced by the opposite, where the ratio between mass and void is completely reversed. I find something very meaningful, fundamental, and humanistic about it.” I spoke to Eddie Jones over a video call between New York and Tempe, Arizona, east of Phoenix where the architect heads Jones Studio since 1979. We discussed his design methods, the design of his own, not just one but two houses, his response to James Turrell’s challenge to design a house overlooking his Roden Crater in Arizona, and a feature that makes his houses stand out – eyelashes. The following is a short version of our conversation, included in the new book Jones Studio Houses: Sensual Modernism by Oscar Riera Ojeda Publishers to be released in April.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Your buildings have something I have never seen before – eyelashes. I am referring to metal overhangs bent into a sort of fingers framing the windows. Some houses have these eyelashes in metal, steel, and others in wood. Could you talk about these, and how did you come up with this eccentric idea?
Eddie Jones (EJ): When Frank Lloyd Wright first arrived in Arizona, he intuitively knew the desert was about dotted lines, as opposed to straight edges. If you look at Taliesin West there is a fascia dentil, as seen in ancient Greek and Roman temples. In most of his Arizona houses you will see a similar dentil making a dotted line. And what you refer to as eyelashes, has to do with that idea. My intention was to cast intriguing shadows. I said, “How can I make a fuzzy line?” It was easy! We used a water jet cutter to slice the metal overhang edge of the Charles Drive House then bent the fingers up and down. It was only when we finished, was I reminded of eyelashes. In another example, the Starwood Residence in Montana, we cut the stainless steel roof edge to catch snow and form a necklace of icicles that would glisten in sunlight. It’s a beautiful thing. The Outpost uses randomly cantilevered wood boards to dissipate the edges into air. I projected the Scorpion House roof gutter to clear rain runoff away from the elevated deck. Result? The roof edge embraces the sky. Here I must bring up the name of my other hero – Bruce Goff who probably influenced my work as much as Wright. He never gave up. He was enthusiastic about starting over. If something was too expensive or he missed a certain mark, he would develop a different idea and then, another one. Mies said, “We cannot invent new architecture every Monday morning.” But Goff said, “I need to invent new architecture whether it is Monday morning or not.” I agree with Goff. You never knew what he was going to do next. And I hope you will never know what I am going to do next. I don’t claim that’s the way to do architecture. But it’s my way. And it is fun; I am never bored.
VB: You told me that you like to make up projects, working on them on your own time and you continue doing that. Do you mean that even now you keep working on idea projects that may not be realized?
EJ: Of course! I have a wonderful story about that. I once was master planning a neighborhood with an intention to commission a James Turrell Skyspace as the focal point. You wouldn’t believe it – one day Turrell called me! It was for a completely different reason. I had no idea he knew about me. He is like a God. In my opinion, he is probably the most important artist in the world. And his Roden Crater is in Arizona. So, when he called and said he wanted to talk to me, I responded, “And there is something I want to discuss with you!” [Laughs] So, he said, “Can you come up tomorrow?” I dropped everything and drove to Flagstaff, which is 150 miles north of Phoenix. We had lunch and then we drove to Roden Crater. Wow! We spent eight hours together, continuing to dusk. He said, “Don’t look at the sunset; look at the night rising.” He taught me how to see night rising! Anyway, the reason he wanted to see me, as he explained, was his idea to choose five architects to design five houses for individuals who would agree to live there for two months of the year, while the rest of the time, these houses would act as artist’s residences. He asked me not to reveal the four other architects, but you know them.
A short while later, while being in Southern Italy for a one-month-long summer vacation at a 700-year-old villa, I jumped at the opportunity to design this dream project without waiting for the reality of a commission. We would travel daily along the Amalfi Coast– Sorrento, Positano, Ravello; we went to Capri every week. It was a very stimulating trip. Still, I couldn’t simply be there for a long time without working on a project. And that’s what I did. I chose to design the residence that James had dangled. I loved every minute working on it. When I came back, I called James and said, “I know you didn’t ask me to move ahead and develop a design but consider it my gift to you for spending so much time with me. You can use it or not, anyway you like.” He invited me for dinner in Winslow! That was good enough. It was about five years ago, and I am still the only architect out of the selected shortlist who attempted a design. I get to say, “James Turrell has my drawings in his collection!”
VB: I hope there is still future for that project. Wouldn’t it be the point and worth your effort?
EJ: Hell yes! But the point of this story is my idea is out there. If I waited for a real client, that project might never be imagined. In my early days, I would go home and make stuff up to preserve my sanity. I can still do that, although my motivations are different. I can use these thought exercises for my lectures, potential projects, or teaching assignments. Once, I asked my students to design an artist residence at Roden Crater too, not knowing who is coming– a writer, painter or sculptor. How do you make it particular to the family that will live there and subsequent guest artists? Plus, you have a responsibility to relate the house to the Crater, a breathtaking example of Earth art. There are so many unique challenges you may never encounter in your life. That’s why it is important to test one’s self against extraordinary challenges. That’s what I like most – to respond to unique challenges. You must pose unique questions and the answers will follow. So, I see these made-up projects of mine as very useful. But in the past, I would simply do them for pure pleasure.
VB: Let’s talk about your design process and some of your inspirations.
EJ: I don’t allow myself to think about design until I am on-site. When I am there, paying attention to the forces, ideas will appear in my head. Associations and inspiration start swirling around. Sure, my client will give me all the requirements and the numbers. But it is the land that will tell me what the appropriate form and material palette will be. It works like this – client, land, solution. When you combine two ingredients – people and topography – you get architecture. This may sound overly simplistic, but it is based on intuition plus analysis, and my ability to relinquish my pencil to Mother Nature. I don’t know why everybody doesn’t think this way because it is so obvious. [Laughs.]
Speaking of inspiration, I would have to name not just architects as references, but also artists. For example, Vermeer paintings influence me in the amazing way he painted light, particularly how it dissipates on a wall surface. Or how Turrell introduces colour without paint. His colours diffuse and gradually, materially evaporate. That’s what guides me. I am smart enough to design space deliberately, knowing what the results will be. But, more often than not, I surprise myself. That’s what is great about architecture; it allows nature or light to take over. Architecture is a combination of unexpected surprise and deliberateness.
VB: How would you define your work – American, regional, vernacular?
EJ: Well, I have spent my life avoiding answering that question. I don’t want to define my work that way. And if you look at it, especially houses, there is quite a range of responses. For example, two of my wife Lisa and my own houses – one in Phoenix, the other in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico – are completely different. Casa del Nido Osprey is inserted into undulating dune on the coast of the Sea of Cortez. The design is influenced by local architecture with self-supporting brick domes, which are laid entirely by hand. Their precision was verified by the naked eye of an exceptionally gifted local builder, Plinio Rivera. The house in Phoenix is anchored to its site by rammed earth. The barn-like central living space is surrounded by petal like outdoor cylindrical courtyards. The circular geometry came from the nearby forty-foot diameter neighborhood water chlorination tank. To most people this would be an eyesore. For me it became a key design reference… the mother cylinder. The main butterfly roof channels all rainwater to the elliptical stair tower graced by a prominently placed scupper to celebrate the rain event and direct water to the landscape for irrigation. As Antoine Predock once said, “my regionalism is portable”.
VB: Here are some of the words that you use to describe your architecture: alignments, proximity, craftsmanship, calmness, refinement, easy, and mystery. What other single-term words would you use to describe your work or the kind of architecture that you are trying to achieve?
EJ: This is something that has eluded me all my life, and I am still working on it. And that is “restraint”. To name one living architect who is influencing me today, it would have to be Peter Zumthor. I went to see his Kolumba Museum in Cologne, Germany. It was the refinement and restraint that struck me the most with its simplicity, elegance and beauty. I want to do that, and I want to be that good. It seems like a complete contradiction – to be fascinated with Goff and Zumthor at the same time. But somehow, I love both. Restraint is difficult. It takes a lot of skill.