In December we met with Will Bruder at the extraordinary Phoenix Central Library that he designed in 1989 as part of the collaboration bruderDWLarchitects. He spoke about desert light, a strict budget and what it’s like to work through the public design process of a civic building. Afterwards, Will was generous enough to chat via phone with us and elaborate on his 40-plus-year journey in architecture.
A tour of your website indicates that you’ve got more than a dozen current projects, yet you still made time to give us a personal tour of the Phoenix Central Library. How do you remain so accessible?
The person is the brand; sharing, mentoring and navigating a dialogue are all part of the deal. In my own experience, I’ve knocked on very few doors that someone wasn’t kind enough to open. You never know what you’re going to get—sometimes it’s a five-minute conversation, and sometimes it’s an hour conversation, sometimes a lifelong friendship. The act of engaging with people is necessary to the process of discovery. There are always unexpected results from each interaction, conversation or experience; it’s less about knowing something and more about discovering something. The best work comes out of these investigations.
Years ago at a lecture we attended, you told the architects in the audience to “honor your clients. They could have gone out and bought a house on a credit card.” What traits do you continue to see in those clients who are willing to go on the adventure of architecture?
In their life experiences, these clients have caught that architecture has something unique to offer. For them architecture offers the potential of an armature for better living, so they become willing to take that step. Most clients approach me not for a certain style or because of what my portfolio looks like but for the possibility of inventing something for them. What matters to them is the process of design and how their lives will be changed by it.
The first conversations with a client can be very honest. Recently, I was approached to do a 15,000 square-foot house in Las Vegas. I immediately dove into a conversation about the size. Was there a large family, a special circumstance, a collection of some sort driving the size? I wasn’t seeing my investigations resonate, so I quickly lost interest and the conversation ended. In order for me to take on a project, I have to value the client’s values and dreams.
On the other hand, I’m currently speaking with a client about designing a 1,100 square-foot home on Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho. The client has a vision of doing something very special; it’s a modest little structure with two feet of lake frontage. I spent two or three hours with him to move the conversation forward and see if we would benefit by creating some architecture together. This project is as exciting for me as working for wealthy patrons in the civic realm of Riyadh.
As a self-trained architect and a teacher, you bring a fresh perspective to the nature of academics; are architecture schools preparing students to be good architects?
It’s challenging to teach architecture in such a way that students understand and capture the spirit of the poetry and pragmatism of their art. We’re so fascinated with the computer and its software, often at the expense of the intellectual tools that should drive both the pencil and the screen. Once you’re in line at the laser-cutter, so much of the design’s potential is already lost.
I teach based on my beliefs and the values that I find important. For me personally, architecture goes from mind to heart to hand; it’s a very direct process. With or without digital technology, the starting point is always the same. It’s still all about getting to who people are—and so it is with design students as well. I try to bring different course studies to the curriculum and expand who they are. I ask them to get their heads fully engaged and their hands dirty. As designers, developing intellectual tools allows our studios to work in a cooperative model and toward a common goal; it allows us to get somewhere that we’ve never been.
Given that your work is known for rediscovering form with each project, is it difficult to establish a standard set of details in the office?
The only thing “standard” is a belief in the possibility of making. It’s not about creating a set of standard details, but rather, having a consistent understanding of architecture and a respect for the craftsman; details follow their tools. It’s important to inquire about the possibilities that each tool and material hold and what each allows and inspires. This type of standardization becomes a way of thinking—a respect for materials and knowledge of tools. My mantra is that I’m always interested in “how the ordinary can become extraordinary.” Ordinary materials are so often overlooked, and the key to making them extraordinary is in understanding them through fresh eyes.
We love that you designed a car wash—it doesn’t begin any more ordinary than that. how was it as a design project?
It was great; the car wash was an intriguing balance of function and idea. Interestingly, the architecture itself was fourth or fifth on the list of design priorities, below getting a clean car, good service, and so on. At the same time it’s a perfect project for an architect to apply their skills to because the product follows the process. There’s also an entire design strategy around having this captive audience since people have 10 or 15 minutes with nothing to do while they’re getting their car washed. There’s time to socialize, look around and buy “tchotchkes.” So we designed the retail component, and it took off. We did a couple of these car washes, and each of them did better in sales than the car washes that weren’t designed by architects. These car washes have become iconic, and two even won awards for best car wash in America. Notably, there wasn’t an architect on the jury—it was all car wash professionals. I’ll always be intrigued by a project if it has an honest sensibility in and of itself.
Living and working in Phoenix, you’re at ground zero of the suburban crisis of sprawl. Is there hope for the suburbs in America?
No, I don’t think so. For too long I lived out past the edge of the sprawl, and I’ve now moved back into the city. The habit of the endless drive just isn’t a sustainable model if we value our time and quality of life. Architects belong to the city, not to the edge. Our studio moved into an old repurposed building that was a former dance studio; it’s right in the center of the city. We have small residences and businesses as neighbors. We are part of the urban fabric. Perhaps the suburban crisis can be mitigated by some repurposed strips, which can form nodes of activity and identity. We have all the “free” ways we need. Let’s fill in the areas between and not blade any more desert.
And how is Downtown, Phoenix doing these days?
It’s a complicated puzzle. Every city is tied to political cycles of two or four years, and unfortunately, with most modern, auto-centric cities, architecture is more often about object making than the urban fabric at a pedestrian scale. Despite the political variables, I’ve made the commitment of 40-plus years to this city. I, and many others, are working to make our central core a “20 minute place,” where by foot, bike or public transit you can meet all your needs and live a full life.
It’s been said that the age of the high-rise is over; apparently that’s not the case in your office, as you’ve got several on the boards.
A tall building is still an iconic marker that has the power to define a skyline and a place. There are a handful of high-rises that remind us of the power and beauty of this building form. For the design competition for the Tatweer Towers in Dubai, we asked ourselves what it means to be iconic in Dubai; we wanted to present an attitude of social change and sustainability. The vertical is not dead yet; rather, it’s about how high-rises honor a place.
With increasing levels of programmatic requirements, city bureaucracy and building code regulations in the architecture profession, how do you advocate keeping the poetry in a project?
It’s important for architects to understand that building codes are only there to protect life safety, and you can appeal anything in the codes; their introductions even state this. You can’t feel bound by building codes, and at the same time you have to understand them; you can’t challenge the rules until you know the rules and why they’re there.
Years ago, we had a project in Tempe, Arizona, where we actually appealed and changed the building and zoning codes simply by continuing to ask “why not?” We embraced the democracy of the building code process, and we proved our case; it worked because people want to be part of an idea. You have to take building codes as a challenge and realize that there is a place for collaborative conversation and change in each project.
Do the design review boards and community meetings often associated with public work pose a threat to the invention and wonder of architecture?
No, they’re never threatening. The review boards and public meetings empower the poetry, wonder and beauty of a project. The town or city is coming together to do something special, and part of our job as architects is to listen to and educate the public. It’s about opening up a dialogue and coming to these meetings with a sense of potential. Frankly, I can’t understand why we have so many mediocre buildings that don’t rise to the occasion. People love to see their ideas reflected in a design solution.