Phoenix, Arizona

Will Bruder + Partners

In Phoenix, sprawl creates cultural, economic, and architectural mash-ups both weird and wonderful. Time and space collapse in the so-called Valley of the Sun, opening up views of Jiffy Lubes framed by rugged mountains, foreclosed houses next to a new boutique hotel, and Tod Williams Billie Tsien’s Phoenix Art Museum just blocks away from a mock-Aztec restaurant offering “Mex & Match” menu items. This is where the frontier meets the strip mall. Will Bruder, who moved here from Milwaukee more than 35 years ago, knows and loves this place. His work—from the Deer Valley Rock Art Center [RECORD, October 1995, page 64] to the Central Library and Loloma 5 condominiums [RECORD, July 2005, page 132]—mines the area’s geological, archaeological, and stylistic heritage, then transforms these sources into buildings that glorify the act of construction, whether humble or lavish. Without ever being literal, his designs put you in touch with desert ravines, Hohokam ruins, and the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Approaching Bruder’s new Agave Library in an outlying part of town, you drive past a car wash and a Blimpie before reaching what seems to be a tilting, curving billboard with giant letters sliding off to one side. Made of vertical strips of galvanized-steel hat channels attached to steel I-columns and tube beams, the freestanding structure serves as a false front announcing the library. Leaving narrow spaces between the steel channels and using reflective film for the letters spelling out agave, the architect made sure the supersize “scrim” (56 feet at its highest point) plays with shadow and light during the day and catches headlights at night. “It’s a cowboy front with a scale and presence big enough to signify the civic role of a library,” says Bruder, referring to 19th-century Western buildings that used false fronts to seem grander than they really were. The next moment, he’s talking about the library’s scrim as a drive-in movie screen, adding another layer of cultural reference to the mix.

Working with a tight, $6.65 million budget for the 25,400-square-foot branch library, Bruder tucked an inexpensive masonry box behind the swaggering street facade. What at first seems to be dumb cinder-block construction, however, turns out to be a tutorial in using standard concrete-masonry units (all 8 by 16 inches) in subtle and unorthodox ways. For example, he angled (or “wobbled,” in Bruder lingo) some blocks slightly out of alignment, so they create vertical strips that catch shadows and add texture to the facade. At the four corners of the building, he stacked the blocks so they form a mitered edge running straight up in a crisp line.

Most important, he used the posttensioned, stacked-bond blocks to choreograph a lively dance between solid and transparent elements—a duet that informs both the interiors and the exteriors. Visitors enter the library on the north (not the east, where the false front merely catches their attention). Mostly opaque, the entry facade contrasts the sandblasted concrete blocks with vertical slits of glazing irregularly spaced along the lower 8 feet of the building. Once inside, visitors notice that the south wall offers an inverse composition—with concrete block and glass slits resting above an 8-foot-high band of glazing. Because the interior is mostly one large, open space, the play of one side off the other, and shade off of light, animates everything. And the sight of heavy concrete block seemingly floating above glass (but in fact supported by slender steel-pipe columns) adds a welcome element of surprise.

“I like to reinvent the ordinary,” says Bruder about his use of materials such as cinder block. “It’s also a matter of being local and creating buildings that people want to touch.”

Inside the library, Bruder used low, perforated-steel partitions and bookshelves to create separate areas while maintaining views through the 24-foot-high space. In a few places, he dropped the ceiling a couple of feet and inserted skylights to give the areas below a different ambience. To separate a computer-training lab from the rest of the library, he hung from the ceiling translucent-orange strips of the plastic used in refrigerated-meat warehouses. Colorful carpet tiles on troweled-concrete floors form “area rugs” in certain places, serving as another way of identifying spaces without resorting to partitions. Maintaining views through the building not only makes it easy for visitors to navigate the interiors, but allows the city to staff the library with just one person at a centrally located service desk and another roaming about. Exposed gang-nail timber trusses running from one end of the building to the other also reinforce the sense of one big communal space. And as Bruder notes, they act as “a poor man’s wood ceiling.”

The cinder-block walls and sealed-concrete floors establish a low-key envelope within which Bruder added a few splashes of electric color—in particular, lime green paint on the gypsum-board walls of a study block, the translucent-orange-plastic curtain of the computer lab, and candy-colored furniture scattered about.

While the mostly solid north facade blocks views of and sounds from the parking lot, the south elevation opens onto a garden landscaped by Christine Ten Eyck and separated from the adjacent property by a low, winding gabion wall. Here, Bruder placed a torqued and tilted, steel-framed story tower that can be entered directly from the library but has its own off-kilter identity. A skylight at the top and two windows cut into the stucco walls at different heights and angles direct shafts of daylight into the small space and are best appreciated while sitting on the floor.

Context means different things to different architects. In an anything-goes kind of place like suburban Phoenix, context is particularly hard to pin down, let alone respond to in an intelligent way. So a modest-size project, such as Agave Library, that both fits in and stands out among strip shopping centers, saguaro cacti, and jagged-edged mountains makes a proud statement about the role of architecture in the modern Southwest.