Architects are like anyone else: They're susceptible to the charms of the New Mexico landscape.And their projects here are challenging them to define context for, in many cases, art collectors who have chosen to build second homes in a landscape washed by light.
"I first went out there in 2000, and I'd never been to New Mexico; I didn't know anything about it. When you go there it's a revelation, because it's so dramatic and so elemental," says Mark DuBois, a principal in the New York City firm Ohlhausen DuBois Architects who has designed two houses in Santa Fe-one outside of town and another under the city's strict historic codes. One was built for art collectors, the other as a studio and house for an internationally known artist. "In New Mexico everything is so extreme and so severe, and so rich in such a subtle way," says DuBois, who notes from his office near the Bowery in Manhattan that he would like to do more in the state. "People take their landscape for granted-even if it's forests or oceans," says DuBois, who also has current projects under construction in Colorado, on the north shore of Long Island, and in California. "But when you're in Santa Fe you're acutely aware of the environment. So as an architect, that's like heaven, because it's that awareness of materials and textures and light and air. That's what I try to do every day, and the environment is giving it to you all the time." He is not alone among architects from outside of New Mexico who are designing houses for clients who live elsewhere and want to move in-if perhaps only parttime-with the landscape that seduced them. Nice work if you can get it.
Another is Ted Flato, of the very busy Lake/Flato firm in San Antonio, which has completed one house for an art collector and has another under construction. Each of Lake/Flato's projects was designed for a client from Texas. "For both of our clients, part of what they loved about the desert was the fact that it was a wide-open, pristine, light-filled environment. The sense of minimalism, but also shelter and texture, were important aspects to them," says partner Flato. Ohlhausen DuBois has eight employees. Lake/Flato has 70 and is growing. Yet both firms emphasize a harmony with the landscape in their work. Both state their commitment to designing modern buildings that are intended to be more than mere rectilinear extrusions in a place that has been defined by its history. Both are trying to introduce or adapt new materials that won't clash with their surroundings or disappear into a constant fabric-neither McMansions nor stucco clones. It's a challenge. Neither firm has had the textbook fight with Santa Fe clients that ends in abandoned projects or lawsuit horror stories. "I think architecture really succeeds when it is an expression of its setting, and I do really believe in the regionalism thing, that architecture is about its place," observes DuBois, who grew up in Toronto and studied architecture atYale and Harvard. ( Trend published his Santa Fe house for Austin-based art collectors Michael and Jeanne Klein as the cover story in Summer 2006.) "I love the fact that when you go hiking in Santa Fe, it's about these dramatic views and also these tiny plants that are barely hanging on in this harsh environment. The combination of these art collectors and this really extraordinary environment was also the combination of the light and the landscape," he recalls. "Doing a house that was about art was like a perfect storm for me: the textures, the subtle colors. On top of that, [making the house work for art] was all about perception and mindset."
"I realized, maybe more in retrospect than at the time, that I was designing a house that was really about the light and the landscape, and also about the art at the same time. I wanted the house to be part of the landscape, and I wanted the art to be part of the house. It was like the desert was the canvas for the house, and the house was the canvas for the art."
Clients here of big- or even midsize-city architects tend to be people who have moved to Santa Fe from elsewhere and have chosen the town for its signature climate. With that, DuBois says, landscape inevitably becomes part of the project, either in incorporating views or materials, or in creating a rhythm between outdoor and indoor spaces. New York artist Paula Hayes designed the landscape for the Klein house, using ricegrasses both around the perimeter and in undulant silicone planters that her studio produces. Those objects in this house's context bear a miniaturizing relationship to the vastness of the hilltop site "You have to make a house that responds to the landscape. The climate there is spectacular, so you want to be outside as much as possible," DuBois observes. That inside/outside harmony is evident in the house that Lake/Flato designed in Santa Fe for Tom and Sally Dunning of Dallas. (Lake/Flato's second Santa Fe house, now under construction, is for Marlene Meyerson of Dallas; she is chairwoman of the SITE Santa Fe board.) The Dunning residence consists of six stucco buildings linked by low portals and arranged around a central courtyard. "Adobe has big, thick, massive walls," says Flato. "And those walls can be treated in a very sentimental way, where there are soft niches carved into very soft rounded corners, or they can be treated with a more modern sensibility."
Clients who spend time in Santa Fe in spring, summer, and fall, instead of just in winter, are opting for glass walls and for houses that are open to the elements, not walled in as previous homes had been to keep out the cold. When visiting patterns change, materials change, says Flato. Growing up in Toronto, where available natural sunlight is rare, made transparency more a necessity than a metaphor in DuBois's work. But encountering the sun's constancy in Santa Fe posed a formal challenge. The Kleins owned a James Turrell and planned to install it into their house; the area of that Skyspace, however, had to change in the architectural process from 21' x 21' to 19' x 19' in order to have the art fit in this instance into the specifications of the architecture. Light galvanized DuBois' attention as an architect as well: "The idea was to create a transitional kind of light, where the outside was so bright you needed sunglasses; indoors, it can be disconcertingly dark and abrupt. One of the real challenges in Santa Fe is to create a soft, gentle light that gives you the clarity of New Mexico but makes it livable."
Livability was a different challenge for the artist's residence DuBois built on the east side of town. Architects tend to chafe at building and preservation codes, but for DuBois, a house that he designed as a loft and living space on an eastside lane managed to emerge as a residence and studio space that grabs its site like a prow. DuBois balanced designing for an artist who has urban sensibilities with meeting the demands of preservationists: "We had to make some concessions to satisfy [historic code], but basically I think we got the house that we were striving for." Its tall silhouette has clean, long lines-and a high-walled exterior courtyard that opens to the back. DuBois emphasizes that using materials that show their history, like travertine, is significant in this context: "When you go around New Mexico, you see geology in action. You see erosion, and you see things being built up and worn down. I wanted to capture those basic qualities of materials, how they're made and how they feel. People really respond to that," he observes. And people can pay for it. But, say both of these architects, costs in Santa Fe remain comparably low, especially in crafts with long local traditions like masonry and plastering, where clients in Santa Fe get far more for their money than they might elsewhere. "I'm building in New York now-it's ridiculous," said DuBois. "By contrast, Santa Fe seems like a pretty good deal" in the fees of tradespeople.
If DuBois were to build in Santa Fe again, he says, "I wouldn't even mind doing an allstucco house, but in a very contemporary vocabulary."
Lake/Flato faces a different precedent for its new art building on the campus of St. John's College. "The whole campus was designed by John Gaw Meem, and he's revered," says Flato, citing the respected Southwestern architect. The $40 million price tag of the new art building could be the cost of a house in Manhattan.
A house for art? Not quite, despite the small scale of the college. "It's an educational institution," says Flato, "and the architecture should be forward-looking as well." Taking us back to the challenge of new construction in Santa Fe. How do you abide by a centuries-old context and still make architecture with tools beyond a cookie cutter? "You're building in the 21st century, and not back when John Gaw Meem did it, or even before. You want the students to be inspired by it," Flato says, noting that even on the most traditional campuses, the memorable buildings were the ones that pushed the limits of an institutional style. "We're really just trying to be good citizens." But do good citizens make good architects?