by Devanshi ShahSep 16, 2021
The work of American architect Rick Joy, particularly his houses, helps to trace a fascinating trajectory from initially purist, flat-roofed European villas of the 1920s and ‘30s to still largely abstract but more tactile mid-20th century modern houses in the suburbs of East and West Coast American cities, to a kind of vernacular version of Modernism – closer to the ground and more responsive to the climate and landscape that started appearing from early 1970s in the American Southwest. A number of architects in the area seemed to ignore international trends by developing their own organic aesthetics with emphasis on building itself by achieving extraordinary levels of spatial, structural, material, and craftsmanship poetic. Examples of such careers include Fay Jones (1921-2004) in Arkansas, Ted Flato and David Lake in San Antonio, Marlon Blackwell in Arkansas, as well as William Bruder, Wendell Burnette, and Eddie Jones – all in Phoenix. Rick Joy built his practice that he opened in 1993 in Tucson, Arizona, by learning from local climate, rich architectural precedents, and reviving traditional building techniques.
Growing up in the opposite end of the country, in Maine, where he was first trained as a classical percussionist, Joy moved to Arizona in 1985 at the age of 28 to study architecture at the University of Arizona and stayed there. Right after graduation, in 1990, he found his first job with Will Bruder Architects, working for three years on Phoenix Central Library along with Wendell Burnette. The architect opened his practice in Tucson in 1993, focusing on producing seductively beautiful small projects in Sonoran Desert. His earliest works – Convent Studios (1997), Catalina House (1998), and his own studio, 400 Rubio Avenue (1999), all in Tucson – attracted a lot of media attention for their masterful use of rammed earth walls that since entered the vocabularies of architects in various parts of the world. Joy’s studio now numbers over 30 architects; many come here from other continents to learn from the master. Apart from houses in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Idaho, Vermont, and in the Caribbean, the architect’s celebrated works include an apartment building, Tennyson 205 in Mexico City (2019); Princeton Transit Hall and Market in Princeton, New Jersey (2018); and Amangiri Resort and Spa in Utah (2008), a collaboration with Burnette. The following is an abbreviated version of my interview with Rick Joy via Zoom video call between New York and Tucson, Arizona.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): I am sure you noticed that suddenly, and for about a decade now, there is a lot of attention being paid to the countryside. That’s where almost all your work is. Could you talk about practicing in the countryside and the advantages for architects there versus opportunities that cities offer. Typically, architects go into the countryside to discover local building techniques and traditions. What did you find?
Rick Joy (RJ): I think one of the misunderstandings about my work is that I made a choice to work in the countryside. I didn’t. I opened my practice and the first person who called, asked me to do an urban project in downtown Tucson. But the next person asked me to do a house in the desert. Then there was another house in the desert. And that was the time when people were moving to Tucson with a kind of pioneering spirit – to live on land and be remote. I am not like that and I wouldn’t want to live this way myself. But, eventually, we were asked to do all kinds of projects such as Princeton Transit Hall and Market on a corner of Princeton University’s campus. And then I got a call to do an apartment building in Mexico City, Tennyson 205 in Polanco, in the midst of this megacity. It is a luxury building but what really makes it luxurious is the fact that despite being surrounded by other buildings on three sides, there are three vegetated lightwells that bring daylight and nature to every room, which was a great challenge. And when I asked the client why he hired us, he said, “Because I knew you could bring nature to our lives”.
And if you look at all our projects in cities, they still carry our identity – they are bespoke, specific to its place, and rooted, just as our countryside projects. I don’t think there should be much of a difference in the design approach. I treat all our projects the same, no matter where they are located. But one of the advantages that I would stress of being working in the countryside is that there is an opportunity to do work with your own hands. I worked a little bit as a carpenter, and I used those skills in many of my projects. It helps a lot to discover things because you are working directly with materials and the environment.
VB: Early on you developed a reputation of ''the rammed-earth guy” for reintroducing this ancient wall-building technique of compacting earth and cement into beautiful, rough-textured striated forms into contemporary architecture. Was it something of a novelty in the early 1990s when you started appropriating it into your building vocabulary? How did you discover it?
RJ: After working with Will Bruder in Phoenix, on Phoenix Central Library for three years and before starting my practice, I worked with Paul Weiner here in Tucson who was trying to experiment with rammed earth. He asked me to help him to work on a house project. To get familiar with the material I went around the city and looked at similar projects, but they were all plastered with stucco. And when I saw one of them being plastered, I thought I could almost hear it screaming, “Oh, no, no!” When I studied it, I realised that it is the same material as plaster – earth, chalk, lime. So, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to plaster if it is so beautiful in itself? So, we said, let’s just do it exposed.
So, we did it with Paul and then I did it in my first project, Convent Studios, three wedge-shaped houses with private and semi-private courtyards and walkways. It was very appropriate because we had to mitigate this tension between old and new. And so, by building the new addition out of rammed earth, rusty steel, and rough-sawn wood we were able to achieve something very contemporary within a very precious historical neighbourhood. When it was finished in 1997, it was very novel, even shocking for some people. But soon it became accepted and even desired. The following year I did Catalina House, also in Tucson. Then our own studio, 400 Rubio Avenue, was finished in 1999. I think it is the most glorious way of building in this region; it is beautiful, and it retains heat at night. Of course, now it has become a very expensive thing to do.
VB: I bet it also has become very fashionable.
RJ: Not really. In fact, I tried to make it fashionable by publishing it in Vogue and other magazines. Interestingly, it is fashionable with the very wealthy clients. But when I tried to use it in my modest budget projects, my clients saw a stigma attached to it. They associated dirt with poverty. And not only here, but I encountered the same attitude in Chile and in the Caribbean.
VB: You mentioned that you saw some examples of rammed earth walls being plastered over. But have you seen any examples of these walls left exposed before making them a part of your own architecture?
RJ: No. But years later, I discovered one local project that the contractor didn’t cover, which was probably also done in the early or mid-1990s. But at the time, I was thinking I was completely original.
VB: You said your design is driven by the narrative before the actual form is considered. Could you talk about your design process?
RJ: I am not a form-driven person, even though if you look at the peaked profile of the Princeton Transit Hall, it is surely a form-driven project, which was conditioned by the University’s Collegiate Gothic architecture. So, in a way, we made our own Gothic building. I think, fundamentally, my work is about the act of looking through it and experiencing it. It has to do with how Juhani Pallasmaa refers to architecture as a verb not a noun; the act of looking through a window, through a threshold. It is more about achieving a certain atmospheric quality and staging for a lifestyle before thinking about a form.
Even if you look at our Sun Valley House, which has steeply folding roofs that visually merge with the peaks of the nearby Bald Mountain in Idaho, it is not entirely driven by a form. Instead, the house’s steep roofs reflect the client’s demand to build the house off the grid and the roof was designed as a device to collect water from rain and melting snow. The butterfly roof over Catalina House was also about collecting water. And Tubac House was, in part, about designing long beautiful shadows. Finally, the Desert Nomad House, three squared volumes, are all about capturing very specific light events in the distance through their apertures. They were designed as instruments. It was about designing a particular sequence of spaces through which residents would continuously reorient themselves toward nature.
Our design process is about a narrative; that’s how we work from the very beginning – we dream and talk before any sketches are produced. To us, architecture is a sort of storytelling. And with the Princeton Transit Hall it was about reconsidering the original program. We convinced the client and the campus architect that it was an important gate-like location and there was a need for a much grander civic space than originally planned. That discussion led to allocating a bigger budget, which resulted in a much more gratifying public building where in the last couple of years several dozens of student weddings were held.
VB: You describe your houses as “propositions for a way to live in the landscape”. I also like how you said, “Making architecture is educational. The more you do it the more you learn about nature”. Could you talk about the relationship or rather romance between your architecture and the environment?
RJ: I think what is most telling about our buildings is that you don’t need a watch; you can see a sun trace in various places throughout the day and know what time of day it is. For example, when the sun hits the end wall at the studio here everyone one knows it is lunch time (laughs). The house becomes a sort of device. People who work here at the studio tell me all the time about different details they notice that are about either the sun, land, wind, reflections, and so on. They can observe and understand why the building was designed a certain way. Our design process is a way of learning about nature and about architecture.
VB: Describing your work, you use such phrases as an atmosphere in a crafted space, nuanced observation, vivid awareness, sensory attenuation, balance between sensually attuned and sovereign inhabitation, sensory play, grace and calm, connectedness to a place, sequences of memorable threshold experiences, local spirit of refinement, unique identity of place, rhythms and patterns of the site, perfect view, an object in the landscape, and finally, slow architecture. Could you talk about the key intentions of your work and what kind of architecture do you try to achieve?
RJ: Well, I don’t think I can say any more than what you just said. All these little snippets from conversations that express how we want to do our architecture. And I think the only one of these phrases that I borrowed from someone else is slow architecture, which is from Peter Zumthor. Every time I see him, when it is time to say goodbye, he says, “Keep it slow” (laughs).