“Kindred spirits” is how the four partners at Studio Ma describe themselves, and their affinities can be broadly divided into two camps: their respect for and love of the American Southwest, where they are based, and the drive to produce good design on tight budgets.
With a staff of only eight in their Phoenix office, the partners have been building elegant, substantive projects at many scales for the last decade—all defined by an acute sensitivity to context, the environment, and construction. One of their first projects, Whispering Hope Ranch, is a year-round camp in Arizona’s Ponderosa Pine Forest that serves children and adults with special medical needs. The lodge, cabins, and barns—mostly asymmetrical shedroof volumes with wood frames—sit delicately in the forest, and the master plan takes into account the area’s risk of fires and of summer monsoons.
More recently, Studio Ma has been designing significant projects for Arizona State University (ASU)—no small feat for a small firm. Their cement-paneled Sun Devil Fitness Center occupies a tight site on the crowded Tempe campus and is targeting LEED Platinum. The architects also restored and reconfigured a 1960s dormitory with a gorgeous but complicated Y-shaped plan and structural-concrete lattice.
Looking back, Studio MA’s collective sensibility and partnership seem inevitable. Married partners Christiana Moss, 43, and Christopher Alt, 44, met at Cornell while earning their Bachelor of Architecture degrees. It was the early 1990s, and “theory was thick” in academia, says Moss. She and Alt were drawn to making architecture rather than talking about Jacques Derrida, and they fled for a semester to Norway to study with Einar Jarmund and Sverre Fehn at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. That country’s rich history of craft stayed with Moss and Alt when they moved to Phoenix in 1997. “Norway taught them the importance of a region and place in architectural culture,” says partner Dan Hoffman, 63.
Moss was working at Jones Studio in Phoenix when Alt met Hoffman at ASU, where the two were teaching a third-year studio. “I could immediately see [Alt] was someone who knew what he was doing,” says Hoffman. “His students’ projects had clearly tectonic responses to sites.” Hoffman had moved to Phoenix from Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he was the campus architect. “Arizona was and still is a very active local architectural scene,” he says. He was drawn to the design community’s straightforward and inventive way of working in the desert and his peers’ engagement with each other.
Tim Keil, 38, joined Studio Ma in 2006 with a strong training in craft, having studied at the University of Oregon. He brings “a rigorous background in terms of institutional clients,” says Moss. Keil worked for seven years at LPA Sacramento on offices, retail, senior housing, community colleges, and more. His deep technical and management skills have allowed the firm to work on larger projects. Studio Ma also has a history of tackling developer-driven and designbuild projects. “The Southwest was booming [when we started], and things were happening very fast,” says Hoffman. “To do work of quality was very challenging, but formative.”
The name Studio Ma comes from the Japanese concept of ma, for which there is no direct English translation. Roughly, it suggests the experiential space between elements, and their exchange with each other. “We place ourselves in between our buildings,” says Moss. “What you smell, hear, the way you move through that space—we really do think about that.”
DESIGN STAFF: 8
PRINCIPALS: Tim Keil, Dan Hoffman, Christopher Alt, Christiana Moss
EDUCATION: Keil: University of Oregon, B.Arch., 1999. Hoffman: Cooper Union, B.Arch., 1976. Alt: Cornell University AAP, B.Arch., 1994. Moss: Cornell University AAP, B.Arch., 1994
WORK HISTORY: Keil: LPA, 1999-2006. Hoffman: Cranbrook Educational Community, 1987-2001; Edward Larrabee Barnes, 1983-87. Alt: Wendell Burnette, 1998-2001. Moss: Jones Studio, 1999-2003; McCoy and Simon Architects, 1998-99
KEY COMPLETED PROJECTS: Manzanita Hall, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, 2013; Sun Devil Fitness Complex, ASU, Tempe, Arizona, 2013; PRD845, Phoenix, 2007; Whispering Hope Ranch, Payson, Arizona, 2005
KEY CURRENT PROJECTS: Lakeside Graduate Student Housing at Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, 2015; Museum of the West, Scottsdale, Arizona, 2015