Like many middle-class Albuquerque neighborhoods, Las Alturas exhibits a quietly gentrified uniformity, with kelly-green lawns and blooming gardens fronting the overwhelmingly Pueblo, Territorial, or brick-and-stucco Ranch style homes. There are a few standouts— like the elegantly modern pop of steel and glass with knifeedged corners—along with a few head-scratchers, such as the mini Mediterranean villa with a massive red-tiled roof that can probably be seen from outer space.
But there is nothing quite like the two-story composition of concrete block, corrugated metal, and sage-green stucco that sits on— or soars above, depending on your point of view—a slightly elevated, narrow strip of what was one of Las Alturas’s few remaining residential lots in the 1990s. Designed and built in 1993 by Bart Prince for Christopher Mead, Regents’ Professor of Architecture and Professor of Art History at the University of New Mexico, and his wife, photographer Michele Penhall, the home at first seems like a totally alien construct.
No doubt it’s a thrill to come upon something built by Bart Prince, especially when it’s in the middle of a residential neighborhood. I remember feeling downright giddy watching the architect’s own home and studio go up on another slender residential lot, this one on Buena Vista just off Carlisle, during the early 1980s. Even today, this bold compendium of the organic and the space age still contains something of the shock of the new, a burst of laughter amid the hushed tones of its quietly respectful Southwestern-style neighbors. Even when he works at a remote site, Prince’s architecture forces a conversation about the relationship between the built environment, the natural world, and what it is, exactly, we expect from our homes.
“Some people think that architecture has to blend in so that it doesn’t somehow insult its natural environment,” says Prince. “You can do that—blend in. You can also stand apart and make a statement. Or you can do a combination of both, which is what I do.” As individualistic and convention- shattering in his art as Picasso was in his, Prince is not primarily concerned with making shapes but with solving problems—of climate, site, geography, and client need and want—even though this may not immediately be apparent. Whether undulating or jutting, crashing or angling, oozing or digging in, his forms can initially seem riotously at odds with their function, prompting the viewer to ask, “What, if any, method is there to this madness?”
Plenty, as it turns out. Bart Prince’s work may not be formulaic, but neither is it capricious. Using his own home/ studio as an example, he explains: “This is the process I go through for every building—before I even begin to design the structure. I start with the physicality of the site: where are the utilities, how do you get in and out, how tall are the trees, what’s around the lot, where does the winter sun come in? Where do I want my studio to be, my bedroom, my private spaces? I think first in an abstract sense, and it grows from there . . . I manifest those ideas into a physical solution to the problem.”
Although the solution is neither exclusively practical, nor even intellectual. There is, says Prince, an important emotional element to his work as well, one that arises out of his desire to express something that is beyond the sum of the parts. “A house has to be more than the bedroom, the living room, the cost of its materials. You have to breathe life into it.”
Mead recognized this immediately. “As a historian, I knew that I would be lucky to have Bart design a house, because . . . I would be contributing to the history of American architecture. At the same time . . . Bart’s pragmatic method of design meant that he would respond seriously and thoughtfully to our site, to our program, to our tight budget, and that he would answer our needs—not design a trophy house that was more about his ego than our comfort. We would get the best of both worlds: a significant work of architecture that is precisely tailored to our practical requirements and emotional interests.”
The result is a house that works on an emotional, intellectual, and economic level. Materials like corrugated metal, cedar plywood, and stucco helped Prince meet Mead’s tight budget (the house was built for only $65 per square foot) while also allowing the architect to transform their simplicity into something beautiful as well as practical.
The downstairs—which contains the guest room, master suite, and the couple’s separate offices—is all about the imperatives of their private and work life. Upstairs, the 100-foot-long expanse—with its curved ceilings and walls and strategically placed windows—is the couple’s public space, one that showcases their relationship to each other, their extensive collection of artwork, and the neighborhood around them. Sited in line with the winter solstice, the home is also about the connection between interior and exterior, offering extensive views of the mountains to the east and the mesas to the west, and directing the everpresent New Mexican light.
Beyond its beauty and its functionality, there is something almost hushed and reverent about the home’s interior. Mead concurs: “In many ways, the form is like a Spanish Mission church: simple, readily available materials used to create a monumental space. We tend to separate the sacred and the profane. Bart conflates the two. I don’t think it’s a deliberate choice, but one based on the notion that daily life is important. Why not celebrate it?”
Prince worked similarly with a client who was moving from Santa Fe to a small rural community outside the city. After living in a conventional Santa Fe-style home for many years, she wanted something different. “The two things I asked for,” she says, “was a connection between the inside and the outside because the setting is so beautiful. My second requirement was a real sense of space, but more as an aesthetic than a measurement. That’s it. Otherwise, why hire an architect if you’re going to tell him what to do
She chose Prince based on a friend’s recommendation, never guessing that he would actually answer his own phone, much less agree to her limited budget. “His response was: ‘I should meet you onyour land and we’ll go from there,’” she remembers. “Nothing about how big did I want my house or what my budget was. I got the sense that Bart [is instead motivated by] the challenge of doing something unique and rising to the occasion.”
When he finally finished her drawings, she says, “He sent me an email that began, ‘Remember me?’ He was so excited by what he’d done. There’s a difference between someone who presents you with his ego and someone who is enthusiastic. Bart is enthusiastic.”
The final designs were shocking. “But in a good way,” she explains. “The plan was so integrated and intact, so meaningful from one part to the other, it was almost impossible to edit it. Everything made so much sense that to tweak it would have destroyed its integrity.”
Although Prince has accepted commissions from around the world, it is worth noting that so many of his homes are built in the American West. It is not a deliberate choice on his part, he says, nor does he seek commissions. Still, those who hire him are responding to something in Prince’s work, a boundless spirit and tenacious vision that is perfectly in keeping with the region’s mythos of rugged individualism.
Born in Albuquerque and raised for a time in Santa Fe, Prince boasts a family tree whose branches extend all the way back into the earliest days of New Mexico’s history. (His great grandfather LeBaron Bradford Prince was governor; his grandfather William Prince a rancher in Española; and his father, Brad Prince, owned one of Albuquerque’s top advertising agencies.) But Bart Prince would not follow in any of their footsteps. Even as a child all he wanted to do was be an architect, even if the did not yet know the exact name for this impulse. After graduating high school in the mid-1960s, he began studies at the College of Architecture at Arizona State University, immersing himself in the history of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. It was here that he also met his mentor, Bruce Goff.
In spite of his upbringing, the design vernacular of the American Southwest held little appeal for Prince. At least not in the traditional sense. “At five years old, I remember looking at Santa Fe and saying to myself, ‘Boy, this is an ugly place.’ I appreciate its natural environment, what the Native Americans built—with honesty and for its function— but I’ve never thought that actual imitation was a solution to any problem.”
Which is something that greatly appealed to his rural client. “I think if we are going to build a home, we need to justify doing so in a different and not conventional way,” she says. “Santa Fe is receptive to contemporary art, but there is a lag when it comes to architecture.”
It is important to understand that Prince does not completely reject the traditions of Southwestern architecture. If anything, he is acutely aware of the need out of which it sprung and the brilliance of those early architects’ solutions—from the Chaco builders to the Territorial Spanish. It is the reasoning behind the vernacular that is of value to us today, not its mindless duplication.
“I think a lot of Bart’s work has to do with the modernization of certain of these traditions,” says Mead. For instance, siting a home to take advantage of winter sun, deflecting wind, and using traditional New Mexican building materials like wood, stucco, concrete block, and sheet metal. “And then he asks, ‘how do these traditions function and look today?’ Bart knows a lot about the history of New Mexico, and he knows its people survived over thousands of years in harsh conditions exactly because they were able to change.”
Free of the need to protect ourselves against marauding bands of outlaws and with our harsh climate tamed by central heating and air conditioning, our architecture can also be freed from certain of its traditional dictates. Perhaps that is why Prince’s homes always appear to be on the move, not anchored to the ground, bunker-like, but seeming to rise above it, like great ships, insects, or birds about to take flight.
“I often say my homes are difficult to photograph because they don’t stand still long enough to have their picture taken,” Prince says. “You are not just walking into a box with a bunch of holes in it; you are battling gravity and the horizon line, but not in a negative sense. The idea is to work with space that radiates out in all directions and build something that resists that gravity, that is part of the earth and yet appears lighter.”
So the question becomes: can we—dare we?—change the paradigm of suburban Southwestern architecture? Some might say that doing so is too expensive, that it is one thing for a multi-millionaire to build a custom home on a seaside cliff somewhere in California but quite another to do so in Anytown USA.
Prince balks. “People think good architecture has to be expensive, and it doesn’t,” he says, pointing out that many of his homes, including his own, had tight budgets. “I have a number of clients with limited resources who wanted something more. They didn’t like what they were seeing, and they realized that something more is available to them.”
Economics aside, other critics maintain that suburban neighborhoods must remain uniform for aesthetic and cultural reasons. Again, Prince disagrees, pointing out that perhaps part of the problem is that we “accept the houses we are given” because we fear asserting ourselves in the environment.
“We humans have a right to be here and express ourselves, and we don’t have to be bashful about it,” he says. “Yes, there are extremes—we don’t have to plunk down a Wal-Mart box with no sensitivity to the existing environment—but at the risk of saying that we can improve nature, I have to say that I believe that we are as much a part of nature, of the earth, as anything else. When you can’t imagine a site without the house, when you have made someone experience the environment around them in a way they normally would not have, then you know you have succeeded.”