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Desert concrete that inspired great architects

sharp angles

In Arizona, claims Dennis Sharp, there has been continuous experimentation with concrete forms and surface, from Wright and Soleri to Predock and Bruder

The Arizona desert may seem an unlikely place to learn about concrete, but it has been a hotbed of experimentation for many years. Some structural experiments date from the New Deal (dams, river and bridge works); others come bang up to date with an interest in concrete finishes for new buildings by South-west architects like Antoine Predock (whose huge, solid concrete Nelson Fine Arts Center at asu, Tempe, is still the talk of the town), Tod Williams (with his green-surfaced Phoenix Art Museum), William Bruder and the younger Wendell Burnette. They are current links in a chain that connects the development of poured concrete and block construction with Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri.

Examples of Wright's early concrete block 'Usonian' houses can still be found locally, while his experimental use of concrete with strong, colourful 'desert stone walling' is still a joy to see at Taliesin West. It involved pouring concrete around randomly placed rocks, leaving the vertical faces exposed like a line of rocks in the desert or a 'caravanserai' with 'art works built into the walls', as Alan Reiach recalled in cq in 1974. The partly demolished Rose Pauson House was constructed with desert- stone walling in 1939. An extant version of this unique walling system can be seen in the charming 'single person' Boomer Residence 1953.

Paolo Soleri, a former Wright 'apprentice', has been using a variety of casting, lifting and pouring techniques over many years at his Cosanti Foundation, and, on a much larger scale, at Arcosanti, the Arcology or 'urban living experiment' taking shape at Cordes Junction. Here, Soleri has produced a succession of designs for concrete surfaces of his apsidal wind-bell foundries using sandsilt casting methods. Today, traditional pre-cast and in-situ methods are employed for some new apartments and the roof supports for a new theatre.

Experiments like these have had an influence on the way concrete is used by the new generation. William Bruder, a former Soleri apprentice, has gained a wide reputation for his new Phoenix Central Library (1995). It won the Benedictus Award in 1996 and rises out of Downtown like a majestic mesa in Monument Valley. It is a climatically responsive building, lightweight with moveable cladding but rooted in a sandblast- finished in-situ structure. An earlier, smaller version, the Cholla Branch Library, uses an even more restricted palette, combining a bold almost 'art brut' smooth exterior with galvanised metal and glass.

Out in Deer Valley - the real desert - Bruder's Rock Art Museum had to come to terms with its setting to become almost invisible in the lunar- like landscape. Cut into the rock - a coarse, dark-purple copper slag similar to the surrounding mountain boulders - it was placed in pre-cast panel casting beds to give a finish compatible with the richly coloured surroundings.

Another simple experiment Bruder made was in the surface treatment of standard concrete blocks used in the Koi Ami Temple. Here, he used blocks not as neat, flush and vertical elements but with random wall offsets allowing the sun's rays to create shadow plays on the walls. This small detail goes a long way to enliven the cubic, Adobe-inspired character of the scheme which otherwise could have been as boring as your average Marley garage.

The Cox Residence is much more dramatic. Set into a desert hillside and surrounded by cacti, it uses broken pre-cast concrete blocks to create rough wall surfaces. This low-cost desert house with its curved phallic- shaped ground plan uses broken cast blocks with 'weeping' mortar joints to give an almost primeval feel both inside and outside. This is not an old hippie idea from the book of 'as founds' or a principle derived from the Garbage housing ideas of the 1960s - although with Bruder's bookish interests it may well come from both - but rather it is a novel and economic way to provide a textured relief finish that works well in sunlight and acts as a fine contrast to the smooth areas of glazing that open up to the curved fan-shaped terraces. It brings concrete experimentation right into the living room!

Dennis Sharp is an architect, critic and writer with a special interest in modern architecture. He was recently elected honorary secretary of the Architectural Association.

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