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Masters of the Southwest: Will Bruder

Author: Rebecca L. Rhoades
Issue: September, 2016, Page 50
This conceptual drawing of a private home, known as Trampoline House, on Camelback Mountain in Paradise Valley is “the kind of sketch from where things happen,” says architect Will Bruder. The green areas denote entry garden spaces, while the blue egg-shaped patch indicates a zero-edge pool.
More than 20 years after being named a Master of the Southwest award winner, architect Will Bruder returns to his urban roots

It has been said that you can tell a lot about an architect by the look of his or her office. If that’s true, then one glimpse at Will Bruder’s studio would suggest a down-to-earth artist who relies on his skills rather than on his reputation, someone who cares more about the projects he creates than of exuding an air of self-importance. And that’s exactly how Bruder wants it to be.

“It’s not about stature. It’s about what excites you,” says the 1995 Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner. Widely celebrated as one of Arizona’s—if not the country’s—best architects, Bruder has created some of the state’s most iconic structures, from grand
Modernist homes, such as the Townsend residence in Paradise Valley, also known as Hummingbird, to civic landmarks, such as the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix, the innovative design of which catapulted him to world fame in 1995.

So it would come as no surprise if he chose to work in an awe-inspiring building of his own design or in a luxury office perched high above the city skyline. But instead, Will Bruder Architects is housed in a small 1947 repurposed brick building that’s tucked away behind a pocket park on an unassuming stretch of Central Avenue in midtown Phoenix. On any given day, clients can find him in the co-work space he shares with his landlord, a fellow architect, flitting between his staffers’ desks, offering advice and design inspiration, his face sporting gray stubble, his button-down shirt casually untucked. Soft-spoken and pensive, he quickly becomes animated—his eyes gleaming and his speech filling with passion—as the topic of conversation turns from himself to his work and the city he loves.

The folded glass facade of Loloma 5, built in 2004, in downtown Scottsdale allows all five units to look out to Camelback Mountain to the northwest.
A native of Wisconsin, Bruder, who has no formal training as an architect—his degree is in sculpture with a minor in structural engineering—first came to Phoenix in the late 1960s, where he studied under legendary architect Paolo Soleri. “I came here to work with my hands in the desert, and I was captured by the ability of the people who came to this unique place to be open-minded enough to create the legacy of architecture that exists today in Phoenix,” he recalls. “It was a place where people were doing things, a place where you could challenge them and fulfill their fondest expectations, and architecture became part of that narrative.” He opened his first studio in Central Phoenix in 1974, and a little more than a decade later, he moved his home and his job to New River, 20 miles north of Phoenix.

Following the amicable 2012 breakup of Will Bruder + Partners after 17 years, Bruder decided that it was time to rebuild his metropolitan foundation. “I returned to the desert, and I became the urban person that I have come to be and enjoy,” he says. “The idea that we now have a studio in a shared work space on the main street of our city, along the light rail, is very important to me.”

Not one to simply talk the talk, Bruder also walks the walk: He and his wife, community activist Louise Roman, live just a half-mile from his studio, along the same stretch of road, in an unpretentious condo in a repurposed 1970s office building. “Where I once lived in a modest house in the desert for 25 years, I now live in a modest apartment,” he notes. “Our home is 1,160 square feet on the sixth floor—the height of the rooftop of Paris. We have a relationship to the street and the immediate urban landscape, but we also have windows that look to the northeast, which gives us that long horizon that we’ve always favored. On a clear day, you can track the sun.”

It is this ability to follow the sun’s light and capture its essence in his completed buildings that is a hallmark of Bruder’s work. “Light is the key, the touchstone. Light is this immaterial material that gives everything its identity. It is both friend and enemy in the desert,” he says. “I’m always searching for how light defines life, how it defines seasons, how it defines the movement of your activities throughout the day.” But following the light is about much more than the addition of large windows and walls of glass.

The landmark Burton Barr Central Library is one of Bruder’s most iconic works and a source of pride for the people and city of Phoenix. Designing it “was the best and worst thing that happened to me,” says Bruder. Following its celebrated completion, “people thought that I was too big and too important,” he adds. “It made me too inaccessible when in reality I was—and am—just Will.”
“The way he places all of his windows and creates his glass is where his mastery really shows,” says Valley real estate agent Scott Jarson, who specializes in architecturally significant homes. “Will celebrates materials in a very fresh manner unlike almost anybody else. I’ve always appreciated his very keen sense of line and the way he manipulates light into the spaces.” In 2007, Jarson and his wife, Debbie, commissioned Bruder to design a Modern steel, copper and glass house for them on a pristine acre of desert in Paradise Valley. The clean-lined, rectangular, two-story home, with its shed roof and deep overhangs, has since become another iconic page in Bruder’s portfolio, frequently referenced in the same breath as the aforementioned Hummingbird.

“Hummingbird was one of the seeds that convinced Debby and me to pursue Will as an architect,” says Jarson. “It’s such a celebration of light and form that it just can’t be denied. It’s a classic.”

From private homes both large and small—“I’m doing a little addition not too far from here for a bachelor, and his budget is less than $100,000. I’m as excited about that as any house I’ve ever done,” says Bruder, dispelling the myth that he’s untouchable for the average homeowner—to public buildings, Bruder’s current emphasis is on bringing people back to the city. “Our economy is based on land and development and sprawl,” he notes. “We don’t think of ourselves as an urban metropolis. We consider ourselves an accumulation of towns.

“The vitality of our success as a humanity in this world has come from living in cities. Cities are where the action is, where culture happens, where business happens, and where we can have dialogues with people who aren’t like ourselves and who have this truly open energy of diversity,” he continues. “That’s not going to happen in isolated little edges. It’s not about acreage.”

Will Bruder
In keeping with that philosophy, Bruder has in recent years focused on developing multifamily residences, including the completed five-unit Loloma 5 in downtown Scottsdale; Sunrise 4, an in-progress four-unit development on an infill lot in midtown Phoenix; and the luxury El Dorado on 1st, a complex of seven high-end residences in the heart of Scottsdale’s Arts District. “We’re betting the ranch that people are tired of driving 45 minutes to an hour to go to a gallery or to have dinner. Their lives will benefit immensely from not being servants to the automobile,” he notes. The project is expected to be complete in early 2017.

When asked if there’s anything else he would love to do, Bruder’s passion for community involvement comes to the forefront. “I would love to do a public school. Notice that I said public, not private,” he states emphatically. “The public school system gave me my education, and I think it’s a travesty how bad the architecture of the schools we create for our children is. We build more sympathetic prisons than we do schools. We’re not creating buildings that are healthy for our children and that have the kind of daylight and living capability that they need.”

Living—that’s what it’s all about. “Architecture happens because of people, not in spite of them. It’s their stories, their needs, their desires that give shape to buildings,” he says. “I’m interested in creating backgrounds for people to have wonderful lives.”

Above and Below: Straddling a large arroyo, the Jarson house in Paradise Valley is sited to take advantage of the northeasterly view of the McDowell Mountains. Its simple rectangular facade, clad in naturally weathered steel and copper, “seems to blend into the rock and over time almost becomes invisible,” says homeowner Scott Jarson. He adds: “Will’s houses are the pinnacle of Modern architecture, but they’re also very approachable. They fill your life with an ease of living that is often overlooked. The house that Will designed for us makes no demands on us. We live with it in complete harmony. His ability to deliver that is what makes it really special.”

Still stylish after 25 years. Built on a steep lot in suburban Phoenix, the Hill/Sheppard house reflects the informal character of a European hill town. It was featured in the March 1995 Phoenix Home & Garden article in which Bruder was announced a Masters of the Southwest award winner.

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