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Aug / Sep 2012
Retro Active

Writer: Warren Singh-Bartlett

David Lake and Ted Flato have taken lessons learnt in Morocco and applied them in the United States. The results could do with being (re)learned in our region. We take you around Arizona’s Brown Residence.


Overlooking a golfing community on the outskirts of Scottsdale, a town slowly being absorbed into the eastern suburbs of Phoenix, the Brown Residence boasts spectacular panoramic views over the carefully manicured links and desert shrubbery towards the low, arid mountains on the southern horizon.

Conceived as a series of outdoor/indoor spaces, it is a mixture of airy, almost ethereal enclosures and satisfyingly solid blocks that house the parts that don’t need to be seen; the closets, bathrooms, kitchen and garage.

Descending the gently sloping site in a series of steps, the residence is divided into separate blocks that are linked together by garden courtyards and shaded, processional walkways. Designed to function both as passageways and as outdoor living areas, the courtyards and walkways are planted with native, drought-resistant flora - cacti but also flowers - and not only link the various parts of the house together but also return a sense of occasion to the act of arrival, gradually enclosing, shading and cooling you down as you begin the process of leaving the outdoors for the in.

Protected from the worst of the Arizona sun by soaring two-metre overhangs, which help keep interiors (especially the more heavily glazed sections) cool, the enclosed parts of the residence, some of which feel more like courtyards over which a vaulting roof has been floated, are linked to the gardens by oversized pivoting glass doors creating easy access between the two and deftly blurring the line between indoors and out.

It really is all about the view. Rear gardens, like the residence, are stepped. Seating areas are sunken, 1970s conversation pit style, to preserve the view over the surroundings from the rest of the house, especially the glass-walled living room. While it clearly hews to Modernist lines, the residence is not some Phillip Johnson-style exercise in total exposure. The clever placement of its more solid blocks, as well as the encircling Tadao Ando-esque concrete fence, ensure residents freedom and foster the sense of living within the landscape whilst completely protecting privacy.

“When you first see the residence, you think ‘gosh, anyone could look in,” Ted Flato, one half of Lake/Flato, the San Antonio-based practice responsible for the residence tells me as we chat across oceans and time zones via the wonder of Skype video. “But actually, they can’t. It’s a home that is simultaneously open and entirely private at the same time.”

It’s also, as he tells me at several points during our conversation, very much about Place. Move over, International Style. For Ted Flato and his partner in design, David Lake, the architecture of Now should very much be a reflection of where it is being built. But before you start imagining the blowsy, sub-Disney, faux-traditional ‘Modern Arabian’ that blights (too) much of the region, in the Lake/Flato vocabulary, ‘Place’ essentially means working with the landscape and climate to create the kind of architecture that makes sense functionally, rather than just visually.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how many mousharabiyye, Arabesque-etched glass panels or pointed arches you squeeze into a project to make it look ‘traditional’ if at the end of the day, all you’ve designed is another concrete and breeze-block box that can only be kept cool by entirely untraditional continent-sized air-conditioners. As my grandmother might have said, that’s the architectural equivalent of dressing mutton as lamb.

“It’s not about harking back to the vernacular,” explains Flato, who traces many of the most egregious mistakes of modern architecture back to the belief that technological advances had erased the need to pay attention to climate and place. “We shouldn’t be looking back to copy a style but to use the past as a spring-board, to learn from the way things were done and adapt that to today. If a technique worked well once, why wouldn’t it now?”

And so, Lake/Flato like belvederes. They like porches. They like cloisters and they like overhangs. They believe in orienting buildings to avoid the worst of the summer sun, to capture the most of the winter sun and to take advantage of any prevailing breeze. They aren’t afraid to make ceilings high to keep interiors cool or walls thick to control the amount of heat they radiate into the house. In other words, they believe in making full use of the kind of passive temperature-control methods our ancestors used successfully for millennia. Old, you see, can be new.

Convincing clients of this is not always simple. Because of where they are located, Lake/Flato have found themselves working for the most part in southwestern America and Mexico, regions that once built in adobe. Naturally, given their inclinations, the material is one both architects favour and when possible (and desirable), it is one they like to use. For some people though, the association with adobe, a material they view as belonging to the past, is difficult to overcome.

“It doesn’t seem modern to them,” says Flato, explaining that this reaction is more common with self-made clients who may have lived in adobe constructions as children and so associate it with a poorer past. “We just have to work a little harder, explaining to them that even adobe can be very modern, that it just depends on how and why it is used.”

Which somehow takes us back to the Brown Residence. Though made from concrete, steel and glass and clearly contemporary in form and function, it was inspired in part by somewhere much older - Marrakech. “I loved the narrow, narrow streets,” he says of his visit to the old imperial capital’s medina. “There were screens overhead, so the light was filtered and cool. Then there were all the courtyards, which contrasted completely with the feeling on the streets. The entire place was magical.”

At the residence, the courtyards are very much in evidence and the ‘streets’ have been translated into the passageways between the assorted solids. Meanwhile, the intimacy of the old city finds echo in the way the various components of the residence are oriented to block out its neighbours, a vital consideration for the owners given that their plot was sandwiched between two existing houses that Flato describes pithily as “faux-ish, Santa Fe-ish”.

Their approach, which can be described as sustainable - although Flato says he doesn’t much use the term personally - has been developing ever since he and Lake first met. That was while they were working under one of southwest America’s most lauded architects, O’Neil Ford, whose blend of contemporary and traditional Flato intriguingly describes during our conversation as “forward but backward” and “Modernist but regionalist”. Today, that approach increasingly winning them not only new clients but critical recognition too. The Brown residence picked up an American Institute of Architects Design award last year and their Hacienda JaJa has just scoped an EcoHome Award.

After decades working with techniques that most of the rest of the world couldn’t abandon quickly enough, I ask Flato how he feels about the surging interest in sustainable architecture and whether he thinks it might just be a passing fashion. “It doesn’t really matter, there’s nothing more fun than having something good also be fashionable,” he replies, casually batting aside my less than ingenuous crack at playing devil’s advocate. “There’s a movement afoot and the more people produce this kind of architecture, making it particular to place and climate, the better.”

Modernism that does not come at the expense of the vernacular. Sybaritic but sensitive. International but with a definite sense of place. The architecture of Lake/Flato embraces a series of what would appear today - as opposites but which in future, may become synonyms. “The design vocabulary is increasingly becoming about leveraging the weather and the climate, about building smaller spaces but building them better, about building what you need and what you will use and that all makes sense,” Flato says, as our interview winds to a close. “A building is there for a while, so building smartly is important. After all, in 30 or 40 years, we’ll still be living in things we’re building today.” Time, then, that we got it right.

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