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Cas a Jax in Tuscan by Rick Joy Architects

[Archive] Hovering lightly in the Arizonan desert landscape, this simple house respnds to nuances of place and climate.

First published in the AR in November 2002

Though a native of Maine, Rick Joy has, since the mid ’80s, studied, lived and worked in Tucson, near the Mexican border. In exchanging the temperate eastern seaboard for the more extreme high desert climes of Arizona, Joy, like generations of American artists, poets, writers and architects before him from Georgia O ‘Keeffe to James Turrell, has been transfixed and lured by the Southwest’s intoxicating landscape and light. Amid this primeval vastness, bleached by blistering sun and blasted by tempestuous rain, the small provincial city of Tucson is a puny blip of air-conditioned civilization basking in summer temperatures that regularly reach 45 deg C.

Yet the harsh terrain of the surrounding Sonoran Desert sustains a remarkable variety of flora and fauna admirably adapted to conditions, such as clusters of towering saguaro cacti that combine defensive hostility with procreative beauty. In this desolate, otherworldly tabula rasa, creative endeavour is endowed with a new and highly charged context, a crucial spur to an emerging generation of Southwestern regionalists, among them Will Bruder, Wendell Burnette and Rick Joy.


Floor plan



Having worked with Will Bruder (notably on the Phoenix Central Library, AR March 1996), Joy now runs his own small practice in Tucson. Though his work is invariably modestly scaled (houses, studios, offices), it poetically synthesizes an utter rationality of form (that recalls the minimalist sculptures of Judd and Serra), luscious Hispanic colour (Tucson is steeped in Mexican culture), together with a craft-based approach to building and an astute delight in the potential of materials (massive concrete, oxidized steel, taut skins of frameless glass). In a region predictably in thrall to the vernacular cheesiness of the ranch style bungalow, Joy’s houses have a searing clarity of conception and execution that extends the Modernist tradition of entering into a dialogue with nature and responding to the nuances of place. The Tubac House (AR July 2001), for instance, is a powerfully graphic composition of glass and rusted steel planes that sits lightly on the ground, like a lizard basking on a rock.

Cas a Jax, Joy’s latest house, continues to explore these themes, and is even more abstract than its predecessors, establishing a deliberate distance from traditional notions of domestic comfort and conformity. Consisting simply of a trio of boxes set in a grove of saguaros and ocotillo, the house is framed by distant mountains. Clad in rough plates of steel like decaying ships’ hulls, the three boxes are elevated on platforms to minimize the impact of construction on the surrounding vegetation. This endows them with a distinct sculptural quality, or, as Juhani Pallasmaa has observed, the aura of a still life by Giorgio Morandi, the pristine cubes and bulbous shafts of cacti like cups and bottles arranged on a tray, echoing his metaphysical compositions.


Clad in steel plate panel, boxes are linked by gravel paths

The fragmentation of the house into its functional components-living space, bedroom and den-strengthens the sense of isolation in the middle of the desert. Daily activities are linked externally by a gravel path winding through the cacti. Each box is orientated to frame particular views and capture light - the living space, for instance, enjoys a view to the south-east of the setting sun illuminating a large craggy outcrop, with the lights of Tucson in the distance. For the bedroom, the rising sun strikes a rock face at the top of the mountains to the south-west, dramatically backlighting the saguaros and ocotillo in the foreground. Each box is framed and clad in steel plate, with panels of invitingly warm maple veneer lining the interior spaces.

A ventilated cavity behind the external steel skin allows heat to be exhausted by natural convection currents. Panels are articulated and their fasteners exposed, emphasizing the applied nature of the metal carapace. Clear glass openings and translucent glass partitions suggest a contrasting fragility and magnify the slightest glimmer of light. Flush timber deck crown each box, so that occupants can sleep out under the stars A small car port 1s tucked into a small depression in the entry hill above The dwelling’s compact, unobtrusive forms recall a set of hunting blinds carefully placed in the landscape. In its sobriety, economy and curiously sensual engagement with nature, Joy’s architecture, even on such a relatively small project, memorably distils the particular with the universal.

Cas a Jax, Tuscan, USA

Architect: Rick Joy, Tucson
Project team: Rick Joy, Andy Tinucci, Chelsea Grasslnger, Franz Buhler
Structural engineer: Southwest Structural Engineers
Services engineer: Otterbein
Photographs: Bill Timmerman

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