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No.17: Casa Jax

issue 46 December / January 2008/9

This issue, Martin Lupton of BDP Lighting chooses his favourite

Architect Rick Joy has lived and worked in the desert landscape of Arizona for the last fifteen years. Originally trained as a carpenter and musician in Maine, he graduated from the architecture school at the University of Arizona and worked several years for Will Bruder before founding his own practice in Tuscon near the Mexican border in 1993. Joy has developed a modern architecture, normally of modest size; a house or an office that responds to and sits in harmony with the scorched landscape recalling minimalist sculptures in the rationality of form the projects display. The extreme vastness and desolate emptiness of the desert landscape and the unfettered access to the light of the sky above has inspired generations of artists including Donald Judd, Walter de Maria, Georgia O’Keefe and James Turrell. “The desert,” says Joy “is a fantastic place in the most correct meaning of the word; it is at times a dreamlike fantasy of a landscape. . . . the desert’s beauty extends beyond objects and things to an atmosphere of place that is defined by quality of light and other sensory kinds of input.”

Work on Casa Jax began in 1999 and completed in 2002. It consists simply of a set of three steel cubes set amongst the breathtaking backdrop of the Sonoran desert and distant mountain silhouettes. The boxes are clad in a rusted steel skin that is separated from the actual structure by a space that allows for natural ventilation by convection. The three cubes are elevated on platforms to minimise the impact of their construction on the surrounding flora and fauna and adds to their sculptural appearance.

Each cube has a different purpose – dining/living, sleeping and working and navigating between them consists of a short journey on a gravel path through the desert in the dark. The fragmentation of the house into its functional components strengthens the sense of isolation in the midst of the desert and deliberatly distances itself from traditional notions of domestic comfort. Each cube is punctured by a huge picture window in a deep reveal to frame the surrounding views and connect the inhabitant to the desert outside. Each cube is also orientated to frame a different view or capture a different kind or time of light; to enable enjoyment of the sunrise, the sunset or a reflected sunset when the rich colours of the setting sun are reflected on the surrounding mountains. The bedroom cube faces west towards a mountain and is party to the rising sun striking a rock face at the top of the mountains to the south-west, dramatically backlighting the saguaro cacti in the foreground. The living and dining cube faces southeast to frame a rocky hill that is illuminated by the setting sun with the lights of Tucson in the distance. The view of the landscape from within the house is as important as how the house looks from outside. “It’s really about taking these enormous panorama views and kind of reframing them and revealing them slowly for different parts of the experience,” Joy explains.

The industrial quality of the choice of steel as a material for the external cladding is contrasted inside with panels of invitingly warm maple veneer lining the internal faces of the cubes. There are also clear glass openings and translucent glass partitions which provide a fragile contrast to the steel and magnify the slightest glimmer of light. And as if all this clever and wonderful exposure to natural and evolving light, in a landscape devoid of man wasn’t enough, there are timber decks on the roof of each cube allowing inhabitants to sleep under the stars.

“Rick Joy’s Casa Jax, or Walters’ House as it is now known is an exercise in hardcore desert living. Three completely separate boxes, each slightly elevated from the desert floor, sit quietly in the desert landscape. The design is simple but incredibly strong. Although the specification and the finishes are high quality, this is no luxury retreat. This is a place where the inhabitant would be fully in touch with the reality of the desert that surrounds you. A lot of current architecture seems to be created without any reference to daylight. Rick Joy’s work embraces both daylight and view (the often unacknowledged and generally unmeasured component of daylight) in such an intuitive way that it can only be described as a completely holistic part of his work. Walters House is an experiential living place with magical properties similar to one of Turrell’s sky rooms. The combination of stunning and effortless daylight, amazing sunsets/sunrise, connection to the natural environment and exposure to complete darkness would make this a lighting designers dream home. Most incredibly, the architecture sits so comfortably in the desert environment that it looks like it’s been there forever.”

Martin Lupton
BDP Lighting



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