THE PUBLICATION OF A MONOGRAPH on the work of Prescott Muir is a welcome and long anticipated event for the design community, an opportunity to assess the work of this important architect and consider its place in the ongoing development of modern architecture in the western region of the United States.
Muir has had an active practice in Salt Lake for 35 years and has made significant contributions to the architectural culture of the region through the design of a wide range of building types including private residences, urban housing and institutional buildings. The large majority of the projects are located in and around Salt Lake City, Utah, a city with a strong tradition of urban planning dating back to the Mormon settlements of the 19th century but lacking strong, homegrown examples of contemporary architectural design. This could be due in part to the Mormon tradition that emphasizes planning, functionality and economy over visual, aesthetic concerns. The mining industry, long prevalent in the region, has left a legacy of robust industrial buildings that have also influenced the culture of building. The landscape is dominated by the basin and range geography prevalent in the intermountain west region, juxtaposing raw rock cliffs and the evergreen forest of the mountains with the semi-arid grass covered basin. The presence of the mountains with their ever-changing play of shape, color and shadow might also be a reason for the lack of a strong architectural tradition in the region, with buildings taking a back seat to the dramatic views of the surrounding mountains. As with other cities of the region, such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, the Salt Lake area is growing rapidly, but unlike Phoenix, with its distinctive desert climate and emerging school of desert architects, the Salt Lake region has not yet developed a unique, regional style.
Muir’s highly nuanced and introspective work is a remarkable exception, demonstrating how a singular commitment and passion for the Modernist architectural tradition can gain traction and begin to inform the cultural sensibility of a place. In this way he is part of a tradition of modern architects working in the coastal and intermountain west regions that have emerged in the post-War era, applying Modernist design principles in inventive ways that highlight the landscape and material culture of their particular locales.
A number of these architects are now emerging on the national stage, applying their sensitivity of local influences and building traditions to the overarching formal narratives of Modernism, bringing a new vitality and relevance to the Modernist trajectory. Architects such as Wil Bruder in Phoenix, Miller-Hull in Seattle, and Morphosis in Los Angeles have enriched their respective communities with their works, creating vital, local schools and movements based upon their work.
These architects understand that Modernism is not simply a style, but rather, a process of design that frames local circumstances within a universal, geometrically based syntax that allows for invention through the incorporation of local building materials and craft traditions.
The tradition of West Coast Modernism began in Los Angeles with Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler, followed in the post-War period by Case Study architects. Taken together this group translated the intellectual and formal precepts of European Modernism into an American, Modernist tradition. As noted above, the formal Modernist tradition is built upon the idea that architectural form is geometrically determined, and as such, lends itself to what the philosopher Husserl termed as an “idealizing praxis,” an application of technology towards an ever more refined and precise manifestation of pure, geometric form. In other words, modern architects embrace technology as a way to render built form in more precise ways. Edges and planes become straighter, flatter and thinner, and the articulation of volumes and solids more hollow and uniform. Modern architects were fascinated by thin, resistant qualities in modern building materials such as glass and metal panels, and their ability to create an ambiguous relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces. Structural components of the buildings were reduced to thin frames, which were often painted black to emphasize their precise, linear qualities. The light, open feel of these structures, captivated a generation of modern architects and established the Modernist principles of lightness, openness, flexibility, invention and construction as emblematic of the post-War generation. From a formal perspective, their compositions were informed by formal principles of the dynamic balance of forms in a two-dimensional figure ground context as demonstrated in this painting by Hans Hoffman. These principles were used to organize both the floor plan and elevations of the building, allowing architects to respond to complex, asymmetrical conditions found in their sites and programs. The late work of Rudolf Schindler as represented by the Mackey Apartments (now the MAK Center) is perhaps the most vigorous and dynamic example of this compositional approach, creating a façade that both separates and binds together the individual apartments in a single structure.
These principles were reinvigorated in the 1970s and 1980s through the work of American artists Donald Judd, Richard Serra and Robert Irwin, who critically examined the perceptual experience inherent in Modernist composition, taking it out of the two-dimensional realm of painting and into the sculptural world of bodily movement. The art object now engages the viewer in a perceptual dialogue, weighing an ever-changing perceptual understanding of the object against a conceptual mod- el or idea of how it is constructed or formed. These artists were also interested in the inherent material qualities of an object, expanding the field of structure through the use of materials used in architecture and heavy construction such as concrete, glass, rusted steel and aluminum.
It was inevitable that architects would incorporate these phenomenal lessons into their work, engaging the inhabitant more deeply and critically in the experience and nature of the building. During this period, architects expanded their palette of materials to engage their buildings more directly with the natural context. Will Bruder was one of the first to incorporate this approach in his work, juxtaposing the colors of qualities of rusted metal and glass against the bright light and shadow of the stark desert landscape.
It should be noted that despite the interest in the phenomenal qualities of material, architects continued to deploy neo-plastic compositional strategies to organize their plans and elevations. This is clearly in evidence in Prescott Muir’s recently completed Michigan Avenue house. Here the composition is articulated by overlapping planar surfaces, each defined by its own material, brick, black curtain wall glazing, flat aluminum panels and stucco. As with the colors in the Hoffman painting, the relative intensity and value of the building materials enhance the layered, spatial reading of the façade, causing the surfaces to be read in front of or behind the other. The planes of material also give an indication of the spatial organization of the house, with its central living space flanked by the master bedroom suite and kitchen dining areas. The central hall is a recurring organizational motif in Muir’s work, recalling the Mormon meeting halls typical of the region. The difference, how- ever, is in the asymmetrical articulation of the plan with its subtle spatial overlapping and stitching between the central space and the flanking elements. Muir has refined this compositional play over the years, marking each move on the interior with a corresponding move on the exterior, creating a refined, legible architecture for those who take the time to observe carefully.
The fine-tuned attention to detail and calibrated composition can also be found in Muir’s elegantly constructed drawings, which provide the reader with an insight into Muir’s compositional technique. Here we see the architect carefully calibrating the composition, weighing the thick- ness of a mullion against the proportion of a window opening located on another portion of the wall, aligning the placement of a door with an opening on the other side of the room. The precision and care of these drawings is remarkable, each line revealing a material and spatial insight into the project. Unfortunately, the tradition of two-dimensional architectural drawing is quickly being replaced by 3D computer renderings marking the end of a long tradition and possibly the end of the Modernist fascination with the refined production of layered geometrical space.
Muir’s interest in facades reveals a sensitivity and commitment to a traditional urban street wall context. This makes him unique among the second-generation West Coast Modernists who tend to view their buildings as singular constructions that are meant to be perceived from multiple vantage points. The list of Muir’s urban buildings is impressive: the Rose Wagner Performing Art Center, the Bridge Mixed-Use Project, the Salt Lake City Arts Center and Ballet West Conservatory, which all underscore the architectural contribution that he has made to the urban design of the region.
The Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center is as close as Muir has come to employing typological precedents on his facades, a step away from Modernist abstraction. Given the large size of the planned project (the master plan calls for an adjacent theater that will double the size of the building on the street), Muir was challenged by the requirement of creating a block-long building wall with few windows or ground-floor openings in an emerging arts district with active streets. This was achieved much in the same manner as the Michigan Avenue house, by creating a rich material palette that defined the programmatic zones of the building while creating a sense of depth within the shallow façade. Punched windows, framed ground floor openings and a notional entablature give a contextual nod to the bearing wall typology of the surrounding historic buildings while a selection of modern materials and motifs, such as diagonal struts supporting a thin projecting eave atop the building wall and metal-clad street, level volumes, animate the façade. The taut street wall is broken in dramatic fashion by a large opening framed with steel beams, creating a deep, proscenium-like arch framing the main circulation stair within.
One of the most intriguing of Muir’s urban projects is the proposal for the Swaner Nature Preserve Building. Located at the edge of new town center in Park City, Utah, the site looks out onto a large, wetlands/meadow surrounded by the peaks of the Wasatch Range. The building was to house an ecological center dedicated to the preservation of the natural habitat of the region while serving as visitor’s center trailhead for a raised pathway into the wetlands/meadow. Muir’s response to the site is illuminating and profound. Instead of opening the view of the wet- lands/meadow from the interior of the town center, Muir takes the bold step of blocking the view with a long blank wall perched atop a row of thin columns, which also serves to conceal the functions of the visitor’s center from view of the town. Curiously, elements of the building clad in white appear and peek out from behind the floating wall. To further confound the visitor, horizontal slit windows peer out from the wall like the half-closed eyes of a sleeping animal. What can be made of such a bold, urban gesture in this rural setting?
Upon reflection, the blank wall is a dramatic gesture that conceals the anticipated scene from view while heightening the anticipation of the viewer for what is to come, the thinness of the wall enhancing the sense of depth beyond. Gaston Bachelard has noted that the apparent depth of the ocean is made even more profound when peering down through the water of a flat placid sea. In a similar way, the depth and space of the meadow and its surrounding mountains are made more profound through the presence of the wall that serves both as a whole in the middle of the scene as well as thin, opaque surface against which the sense of depth is registered. Maybe this was all too much for Park City, Utah. Few architects of the region would attempt such a bold act of negation. However, to paraphrase Henri Bergson, the negative is inherently a richer condition since it assumes the positive and its negation.
The Canyon Residence is one of the more accomplished and expressive of Muir’s works. Set into the side of canyons flanking Salt Lake City, the house engages with the context in bold and nuanced ways, using a wide array of formal moves and material effects. A departure from the frontal organization of Muir’s urban work, the Canyon Residence demonstrates his ability to work in a variety of Modernist genres and measures up to the best work of his regional colleagues, such as Will Bruder in the Southwest and Miller-Hull in the Pacific Northwest. The house captures the rugged and variable nature of the basin and range landscape typical of the region, with its rugged peaks, canyons, grass-covered foothills and flat plains. It also captures qualities of the industrial remnants of mining towns that dot the region, precariously perched on steep hillsides with their rusted metal shacks and black- painted steel gantries.
Unlike the Michigan Avenue house, with its taught, urban façade and precisely balanced relationship to the slope, the Burgess Residence en- gages in an expressive dance with the landscape, with one wing of the house buried into the upward slope of the canyon while another projects over the downward slope and floats lightly over the garage and arrival plaza. Another comparison with a work of Hans Hoffman helps to illuminate how the formal Modernist vocabulary is adapted to looser, more dynamic ground plane. His painting of 1959, entitled The Gate, loosens the interlocking geometry of the figured fragments, allowing the bright, precisely painted rectangles to float free above of the green painted ground, which flows around the space of the painting, pushing up against and falling away from the precisely rendered rectangles. In some instances the dark green reads like a shadow, giving volumetric weight to the spatial ground of the painting. Similar spatial effects occur in the Canyon Residence with the shadows created by the lifted roof and receding garage doors above and below the blue-tinted glass walkway and the dark blue pool set into the rear stone terrace. The range of material and light effects are remarkable, adding dynamic, phenomenal qualities to Muir’s rich compositional palette. The play of light, material and space continues in the interior of the house. Dark stone and steel fireplaces punctuate the space from the ground up as colored shafts of light cut through the ceiling, illuminating cabinets of wood, glass and metal. As with the Michigan Avenue residence, the plan is divided into three zones with a large living and dining room flanked by a bedroom wing and master suite. However, as with the massing of the house, each part is given its own unique material and spatial quality.
Given the formal complexity and range of phenomenal qualities manifested in the Canyon Residence and the strides that it has taken from the works of the early West Coast Modernists, it is interesting to speculate on the next phase of the Modernist trajectory. Will the geometric rigors of the “idealizing praxis” hold as new materials and techniques allow architects to continue to refine the phenomenal qualities of geometric form? Will formal strategies continue to evolve along the Cartesian (rectangular) path, or will new, inflected geometries take hold? Will architects continue to design “from the ground up,” inspired by the natural and cultural qualities of the places where they live and work? The depth and breadth of Muir’s work provides many opportunities to weigh these questions. Future generations will have much to learn from how it deepens and energizes the understanding of a place through the dialogue it constructs between global intellectual currents and the nature and history of a region.
Dan Hoffman is a practicing architect, urban designer, educator and published theorist. Hoffman is a principle, and co-founder of Studio Ma, the award-winning collaborative design studio located in Phoenix Arizona. Several noteworthy projects include the Student Housing at Princeton University, the Salt River Sustainability Center, the PRD Infill Housing and the Entry Portals to the Cranbrook Campus. He is the former Head of the Department of Architecture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and has taught at the University of Detroit, University of Toronto, University of Michigan and Arizona State University, with visiting positions at Yale, Texas, Waterloo, Cornell and Illinois universities. Hoffman is currently a Clinical Professor in Practice at the University of Utah School of Architecture. He has lectured and exhibited his work internationally at over 60 schools. He is widely published and his books include The Architecture Studio by Rizzoli Press.