The Rosie Joe House, named after its owner, is an award-winning house on the Navajo Nation in Utah. It is the first of the houses built by students of the School of Architecture at the University of Utah as part of the DesignBuildBLUFF program on Navajo land. Inspired by the work of Auburn University’s acclaimed Rural Studio, based in Hale County, Alabama, architect Hank Louis founded the Utah program in 2000 and has built a house on the Navajo Nation each year since 2004. This 1,200-square-foot house has been an icon of the program since its completion.
In keeping with the Navajo tendency to ascribe animal attributes to rock outcroppings and mountains, the house sits on a flat horizon like a butterfly poised for flight. Yet this house is not just a Modernist interpretation of Navajo attitudes to objects in the landscape. The wings, legs, and the body of the butterfly are faithful expressions of the house's construction and passive energy systems. The final product disrupts the conceptual opposition between the organic and the mechanical in architectural thinking, for it is part animal and part machine. The house is also a nod to the Rural Studio’s Butterfly House completed seven years earlier, and so the house is also connected to the broader architectural discipline and design build as a pedagogy. At the disciplinary level, it is best understood as a blend of the universally relevant environmental movement and the critical regionalism particular to the American Southwest. Critical regionalism, as theorized by Kenneth Frampton, reconciles analytical opposition between local and global, between tradition and modernity, and between old and new.
In 2004, DesignBuildBLUFF established its current home in the town of Bluff. Louis’s vision for the program was to give students an immersive and hands-on construction experience, away from the certainties of Salt Lake City. The product of their collective labor—a single-family home designed for a different Navajo family each year—is gifted to the Navajo community of San Juan County in the Four Corners area. Central to the conception of the Rosie Joe House and other DesignBuildBLUFF projects is the relationship between a mainstream American academic institution (invested in architecture’s disciplinary debates and plugged into twenty-first-century narratives of privilege, democracy, and charity) and the exceptionally poor native community, where the average per capita income is $7,000 (the national average is $53,750).
The house employs passive solar design techniques. It is oriented along the east-west axis to maximize exposure to the winter sun; the south side of the building is used as a trombe wall to trap the heat from winter sun. To do so effectively, the designers cluster all the rooms to the north side of the house, which receives the least amount of sun exposure year round. The south side, in turn, serves as a long, glazed, single-loaded corridor connecting the different rooms in the house and allowing the corridor to serve as a thermal mass sink. It heats the house in the winter and creates wind circulation through it in the summer. Thick-rammed earth walls on the interior and exterior walls create a difference in air pressure on the warmer south side and the rest of the relatively cooler sides. Simply keeping the windows closed in winter and open in summer creates a comfortable microclimate. The thick walls of the house were created with sand and clay taken from the site and hand tamped into walls. The result is a red-faced structure whose dynamic striations mimic the various tones of the surrounding landscape.
From east to west in the plan are the kitchen (with a living room to the northeast), bathroom, and three equally sized bedrooms one after the other, terminating in a storage space accessed only from the outside. Typical of a hogan, a traditional Navajo house, the main entry of the Rosie Joe House faces east, allowing residents to greet the morning sun on the horizon. Traditional hogans are spiritually hierarchical but have open circular plans, in which functions are organized around a hearth/altar and parents, grandparents, and children sleep together. In the Rosie Joe House, the division of spaces and the programmatic allocation deviates from this tradition, reflecting notions of privacy and individuality of mainstream American culture. This tension demonstrates the challenges facing students and faculty in serving contemporary subcultures that are radically different than their own in terms of political representation, economic resilience, and spiritual apparatus.
Questions of environment and energy and the corresponding ethos of sustainable practice are central to this project. The design strategy draws inspiration from local indigenous traditions of earth building as well as the latest alternative energy techniques. The architects put these features on display: an open-frame roof assembly of welded rebar sits lightly on a base structure of 18-inch-thick, rammed-earth walls. The flared roof is an aesthetic expression of the low-tech and passive features of the design. Designed to induce air movement through the structure, it also collects rainwater by means of a central gutter that funnels it into an outdoor 1,500-gallon cistern on the east wall. A freestanding solar panel mirrors the cistern to the exterior west, and produces all of the house’s energy for lighting and non-cooking appliances. Local, rough-sawn pine boards clad the exterior where rammed earth and concrete are not exposed. As is the case in Rural Studio projects, here salvaged materials abound—the ceiling is finished in wood pallets, the south-facing windows have been reclaimed and “gang-mulled,” while the interior walls are finished in discarded road signs.
The most potent aspect of the Rosie Joe House is its symbolic valence. It juxtaposes heavy earthbound materials like rammed earth with industrial materials that lack visual weight, such as corrugated tin sheet. Three feeble, stick-like elements with none of the certainty and solidity of columns as we know them angle in and tip toward the enclosing walls. They recall the delicate legs of a butterfly and draw one’s eye from roof to ground and back up again. The isolation of the Rosie Joe House exaggerates its zoomorphic quality. The tentative arrangement of the building elements, the hovering corrugated metal sheathing over the enclosure, and the composition of found elements are a far remove from the regal compositions of high modernism, exemplified by the exquisite marble, shiny metal, and spotless glass of the Barcelona Pavilion, but the Rosie Joe House still has the lightness of touch upon which Mies van der Rohe insisted. As a result the house sits as a vulnerable and exposed event, light as a butterfly in a dominating landscape. Here the house does not appear as a castle or fortress against the outside world—it is porous. Its survival is at the mercy of the whims of wind, air, water, and earth, as well as the dominant culture. Robbed from architecture are all pretentions to humanity’s triumph over the elements. It presents humans and nature as interdependent. Architecture is impotent in the face of this precariousness. Although these truths are relevant to all of us, we cannot feel them as forcefully as the Native American people.
Borasi, Giovanna, and Mirko Zardini, eds. Sorry, Out Of Gas: Architecture's Response to the 1973 Oil Crisis. Montreal: Canadian Center for Architecture, 2007.
Canizaro, Vincent. Architectural Regionalism: Collected Writings on Place, Identity, Modernity, and Tradition. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007.
Freear, Andrew, et al. Rural Studio at Twenty: Designing and Building in Hale County, Alabama. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014.