Lake/Flato Architects, Winner of the American Institute of Architects 2004 Firm of the Year Award, moves New Mexico tradition into the twenty-first century.
photography by Timothy Hursiey and Dominique Vorillon / text by Michael Ennis
THIS YEAR’S AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF ARCHITECTS (AlA) ARCHITECTURE FIRM AWARD, PRESENTED TO SAN ANTONIO-BASED LAKE/FLATO ARCHITECTS, shows just how far a firm can go by remaining faithful to a particular sense of place. The honor, the highest the AlA can give a firm, validated Lake/Flato’s reputation for environm ental awareness, sensitivity to site and, above all, fidelity to its Texas roots. Fusing the practicality of nineteenth-century Texas vernacular with modern form and function, Lake/Flato has created a generation of buildings as carefully fitted to the Texas climate and landscape as a pair of custom cowboy boots.
So what happens when the quintessential Texas firm designs a hilltop residence just outside Santa Fe, which is across the state line bitt remains almost a continent away in terms of climate, landscape and local tradition? “The differences are huge,” says Ted Flato, who founded his firm with partner David Lake twenty years ago. “It begins with the weather. A climate that’s dry and hot, like New Mexico’s, versus a climate that’s hot and humid, like Texas has, creates very different solutions. The traditions of the materials are different as well. Texas had a lot of imported architecture. The nineteenth-century European immigrants came with old habits and adapted them. But in New Mexico you had an indigenous people who figured out what really works there, which for the most part was building straight from the dirt—thick adobe walls, low ceilings, minimal windows.”
Client Sarah Dunning never doubted that Flato and his associate, Andrew Herdeg, could make it in New Mexico. Her concern was establishing her own sense of style in a region where the local vernacular has achieved near ubiquity. It was never my thought to do a Santa Fe house, says Dunning, an accomplished Dallas-based interior designer who had recently collaborated with Flato on a major renovation of a Dallas prep school. “At the same time I didn’t want to do something so totally out of character that the neighbors would be up in arms. So the charge was to create a more contemporary environment, because that’s what I love, but to make it work in Santa Fe.
The solution began, in typical Lake/Flato fashion, with the site. “We were up on this little rise in the middle of the desert that offered a three-hundred–sixty-degree view of the surrounding mountain ranges, says Flato. “Since we had all these views in different directions, we created a series of porches that were to the sides of the rooms. Then we took the massive adobe forms that are prevalent in Santa Fe and used those as building blocks to shield out the sun. A porch facing southwest is really great in the morning. When the sun starts slamming down on it, we have an evening porch on the opposite side. The house was designed almost like a sundial.”
The elements of that sundial are actually six separate stucco-surfaced units—four bedrooms, a large living-and-dining room, and a garage and kitchen—arranged around an interior courtyard and connected to one another by a network of glassed-in and open porches. The siting of the rooms was crucial, says Herdeg. “There’s a scattering of other houses around, and the trick was to position the porches and the building blocks to edit out those other houses so that you didn t feel you were sharing someone else s view.
The architects also adroitly exploited the “green” characteristics of the thick adobelike walls, using them as sunshades around deeply recessed windows that allowed a series of signature views from within the rooms while keeping the piercing desert sun out. “Those wonderful thick walls, clad in plaster, are great for absorbing the cool air you have here at night even during the summer,” says Flato. “This is a house for the most part designed without any air-conditioning.” With a fully operable system of screens and windows, the house can be flushed with cool air on summer evenings. A radiant-heat floor system stands up to the frigid winters.
While the drive-by appearance of the courtyard compound could easily pass as typical Santa Fe vernacular, on closer inspection the details are strikingly original. Rusted steel replaces the wood slats and roof beams that characteristically punctuate adobe walls. The rusted-steel garage door, sliding on rails, has the monumental simplicity of a Richard Serra sculpture, a form (and function) echoed in the living room’s rusted-steel fireplace surround and sliding perforated- steel screen. “That’s a bit of our bringing ranch technology from Texas,” says Flato. “But the rusted steel does what the wood used to do in traditional New Mexico architecture. It allows you to have light and airy spaces in contrast with the heavy masses of the adobe construction.”
As both interior designer and her own client, Dunning not only resisted the house-as-ethnographic-museum impulse endemic to Santa Fe but stayed away from southwestern chromatic clichés. “The palette of this house is very quiet,” she says. The colors meld into each other. Untinted poured-concrete floors flow into grey French limestone porch pavement and smoothly finished, integrally colored greyish beige plaster walls. The spare furnishings are classic modern, ranging from 1930s sofas to a stainless-steel table designed by British architectural luminary Norman Foster. The kitchen is as sensuously bare as a Donald Judd installation, with a box- shaped poured-concrete island framed by ebony-stained walnut cabinetry.
The unfailing subtlety of the entire design allows the house to be animated by the real local attraction: the splendors of the western landscape, from the literal views of the mountainous terrain, framed almost like Bierstadts and Morans by precisely placed windows, to sunlight washing over the minimalist lines of the walls. And that artful austerity underscores why the Lake/Flato approach succeeds just as well in New Mexico as it does in Texas. Style, however fresh and unaffected, is always secondary to a fundamental connection with the land, to the rhythms of the day and the progression of the seasons. “The weather influences the way you live,” says Dunning. “In the summertime you can open the windows and feel like you re outdoors. In the wintertime you can close them down. In this house you feel like you’re part of the landscape.”