Desert Oases

Architect Rick Joy's minimalist solutions

Four years ago, while in Tucson, Arizona, I met Rick Joy, visited his studio, and walked through three of his architectural works," writes Steven Holl (best known for his elegant design of Helsinki's contemporary art museum) in his foreword to Rick Joy: Desert Works, to be published this month by Princeton Architectural Press. "In the rammed-earth walls I felt a concentration of materials—what I have often thought of as a hyphenated material-spirit or spirit-material. It is as if these two realms are pressed together into one, thickening the light. Surrounding spaces take on a particular density, with textures animated in sunlight. The overall phenomenon, which is a result of material, detail, space, texture, light, and sound, allows architectural form to be almost negligible."

These rammed-earth walls feature often in the constructions of this 43-year-old musician-carpenter from coastal Maine turned desert-dwelling architect. It is a predilection that reflects both his ecological sensitivity and his fascination with what he calls "the extraordinary sensual beauty of the Sonoran Desert": The walls absorb the heat of the day, releasing it to the house during the chilly nights, and the soft adobe color gives the low-slung structures an organic look, helping them blend gently into the landscape. In one project, the house is broken up into three boxes (plate steel weathered to a rust red that echoes the iron-laced hills) connected by gravel paths and raised off the ground to minimize the impact on the land and abundant cacti. But these are no eco-mud huts for Birkenstockers; there is a sophisticated aesthetic at work, a striving for what Joy calls "bold, modern architecture that is rooted in the context and culture of its place" as well as "inherently sensual and soulful."

Joy's vision of the task of architecture, as Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa puts it in his introduction to Desert Works, is "to create the silence, calmness, and concentration that enable us to experience the beauty of the world and life around us." Case in point, the Tubac House: "Through the garden of barrel cactuses, one descends into a courtyard, [which] provides relief from the overwhelmingly expansive setting," Joy writes. "From here, an oasis unfolds: cool dark shaded areas, the sound of water trickling, hummingbirds, the smell of sage and flowers, reflections." Spectacular views of lightning storms and the desert-clear night sky are captured within precisely calculated frames by the house's orientation and large expanses of undivided window. Touching on a theme that runs throughout his work—the juxtaposition of opposites—Joy adds: "The coarseness of the house's weathered-steel exterior forms, like some rusted artifacts from a cowboy camp, contrasts with the refinement of the interior palette of white plaster, stainless steel, maple, and translucent glass."

Just entering his ninth year as an architect, Joy has taught courses at the Harvard Design School and the University of Arizona and won several awards, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters 2002 architecture prize for work with "a strong personal direction." Among his current projects is a collaboration on a luxury resort in Utah.

Rick Joy Architect, 400 S. Rubio Ave., Tucson, Arizona; 520-624-1442; fax 520-791-0699; www.rickjoy.com.