In the far-flung suburban expanses of greater Phoenix, civic life can be hard to come by. Gated communities define—and depopulate—the street scene. Wide arterials make driving breezy and walking dicey. Social mixing happens mostly at malls. Yet metropolitan Phoenix has kept a hold on civic culture, and nowhere is the hold firmer than in the local support of that most idealistic and benevolent of municipal programs, the public library.
A major marker of this support is the consistent commissioning of first-rate architecture. The Burton Barr Central Library, by Will Bruder + Partners, set a rigorous standard when it opened in 1995, and since then a half-dozen or so branches—most recently the Palo Verde Library, by Gould Evans and Wendell Burnette [RECORD, October 2006, page 124], and the Desert Broom Library, by Richärd+Bauer [RECORD, January 2006, page 96]—have put public libraries on the itineraries of serious architecture tourists. The latest addition to the tour is the Arabian Library, another Richärd+Bauer project.
The Arabian is located in exurban Scottsdale (and named, by that city’s custom, for a breed of horse). The natural setting is stunning, with the 4,000-foot-high peaks of the McDowell Mountain Preserve dominating vistas to the northeast. The built environs are humdrum, with acres of resale-ready blandburbs stretching to the edges of the protected range. But it is precisely this contradictory context that has spurred the designers to produce a conceptually rich and ambitious building. As architect James Richärd says, “We struggled with the ordinariness of the surroundings, with the minimarts, the chain stores, the surface lots. How, in the midst of this generic development, do you make an authentic place?” Richärd and his partner, interior designer Kelly Bauer, answered this question by creating a place that looks inward—“that creates its own context,” as Richärd says—and that connects strongly with the natural landscape. The designers were inspired in particular by the local geology of the slot canyon: the deep and narrow sandstone ravines, carved by rushing water, that are such striking features of the southwest.
The challenge of the inspirational metaphor, of course, is to control it, and not the other way around. Happily, the designers have maintained command of their motivating image (as they did at Desert Broom, where a nurse tree informed the parti). At Arabian, the architectural experience of the canyon starts as you approach the entrance and are confronted by the Minimalist and elegant composition of weathered steel (architourists will be strongly reminded of Richard Serra, and forgiven for Photoshopping out the concrete-tile roofs of the nearby production homes). The experience continues as you wind along a narrow path defined by the reddish-brown walls, which angle slightly inward; a shallow channel, lined with smooth rocks and (sometimes) filled with water, runs along the edge of the building. A couple of turns and you arrive at the protected entry court, where a simple planting bed contains a specimen palo verde tree and hopbush shrubs. This indigenous landscaping sets off a site-specific artwork by Seattle artist Norie Sato, which consists of a steel-and-glass-appliqué relief and a freestanding sculpture, both based upon the skeletal structure of the prickly pear cactus.