The combined residence and studio of Bart Prince continues the organic tradition of Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff while reimagining what it now means to live in New Mexico.
A fourth-generation New Mexican, Prince traces his local roots to his great grandfather. After moving from New York State to the Territory of New Mexico in 1879, LeBaron Bradford Prince served as a Territorial Supreme Court Justice and a Territorial Governor; active in New Mexico’s campaign for statehood, he was also an early scholar of its pre-modern history and architecture. His great grandson, however, grew up in the modernizing world of 1950s and 1960s Albuquerque, and was more interested in the work of modernist architects like Max Flatow than of revivalists like John Gaw Meem, who seemed to be imposing fictional past styles on what was actually the historically mutable present.
Prince discovered the work of Frank Lloyd Wright while still in middle school, took a drafting course in high school, and by the age of 17 was designing houses for a local contractor. From 1965 to 1970, he studied architecture at Arizona State University (ASU), where his professors included Calvin Straub, the California modernist and Case Study House architect. The most formative influence came from outside the school, when Bruce Goff visited ASU in 1968. Goff encouraged Prince’s tendency to solve design problems in original ways, and Prince went to work with him after graduating in 1970. Even after opening his own office in 1973, Prince continued to collaborate with his mentor until Goff’s death in 1982.
The Prince studio and residence is sited prominently at the bend in a busy, four-lane avenue on a trapezoidal plot of land that narrows towards the back. Located in the Monte Vista Addition, platted in 1926 as one of the first subdivisions in the city premised on the automobile, the lot remained vacant long after the neighborhood filled up because the buildable footprint within the setbacks was too tight to accommodate a conventional house. Taking this constraint as his premise, Prince developed the logic of the circle three-dimensionally to accommodate his program in a series of interpenetrating horizontal and vertical cylinders that both maximize the site and lift the upper floor above the surrounding houses for views to the distant mountains.
Two cylindrical spaces, with cast-in-place concrete walls and piers, occupy the site at the front and back. The larger forward cylinder houses the studio behind a protective berm that shelters it from the noisy street. Inside, a radial roof spirals upward on steel pipes ringed by a continuous clerestory, bathing the studio with an even light even as it preserves the sense of an enclosed, contemplative space for work and thought. Four structural towers, sheathed in plywood and ceramic tile, contain stairs or utility spines. The long horizontal private living space at the top is framed in steel pipes and sheathed with tongue-in-groove boards below and cement stucco above. A south-facing circulation hall is shaded against the summer sun by overhanging steel studs, and lined with tubes of water to collect warmth from the lower sun in winter. Off that hall are alcoves for living and sleeping, inward looking yet opening to the sky with walls that peel back to let in light through a concealed clerestory.
The studio and residence is a spatial continuum, pools of space along a spiraling processional path that climb up and through the structure, eddying along the way to permit specific acts of working, relaxing, or sleeping, yet always flowing on. Despite the strongly sculptural forms, Prince conceived the design organically as a system of spaces specific to its site and program, and realized through a structure that makes imaginatively efficient use of materials.
His residence is consequently more open-ended, more adaptable to alterations and additions, than it might appear. In 1990, Prince added a library tower. Organized on three floors, the tower’s inclined profile results from the diminishing circumference of each course of split-faced concrete block, so that the tower adapts to the existing structure by stepping back from a wide base to a narrow crown. In 2006, he added a gallery above the 1946 adobe house he owns next door. The gallery echoes the long horizontal volume of his residence, but with crisply angled forms that act structurally as a bridge to span without touching, from corner to opposite corner, the house beneath it; steel girders rest on three-point diagonally braced columns. The single long space of the interior is lit by clerestories run down the center of roof, illuminating the long exhibit walls to either side with diffused, balanced light.
The open-ended architecture of Prince’s residence integrates his life and work in the continuous present of his constantly changing and updated daily experience. Deeply invested and versed in the history of New Mexico, he knows what it means to build in a land of such antiquity, just as he understands how to intervene in the more recent histories of the Monte Vista subdivision and a 1940s adobe. To copy this past would be to treat history as a collection of lifeless artifacts, ignoring its real diversity and betraying his responsibility to make an architecture that is necessarily specific to its present place. This, for him, is the real lesson of the great houses of Chaco and the Spanish Colonial missions, which impress us still precisely because they are so clearly an expression of their own space and time. Instead of satisfying our expectation for the familiar clichés of New Mexico, Prince makes us look again and see for the first time what this place actually is.
Mead, Christopher. The Architecture of Bart Prince: A Pragmatics of Place. Revised edition. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2010.