The tour of Will Bruder's buildings begins south of the tracks, amid the old warehouses and storage lots and junkyards around West Buchanan Street and Seventh Avenue. This isn't a sneak investigation into the working-class underside of Bruder's work; it's an excursion plotted by the architect himself. Bruder, the architect designing Phoenix's new $43 million Central Library, wants to show off a warehouse.

"Look at the dappling of light in this entryway." Dappling? The morning sun is splintering through a warehouse portal that looks like a grater designed by a mad Italian. "Look at this paneling--to me, it's like Japanese rice paper." Bruder is rhapsodizing about a wall of exposed $8-a-sheet flakeboard. "Look at the quality of the desert's light on this galvanized steel--it's like Kahn's Kimbell!" Meaning Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum, one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century American architecture.

Will Bruder may be a fanatic, but he isn't a flake. Is it an ominous sign that the architect for the library--the most important public building to be commissioned in Phoenix in decades--is raving about the "quality of light" in a $200,000 warehouse remodel? Decidedly not. Architects who don't ponder the romance of light and texture and space give us joyless hovels like the Phoenix Civic Plaza. Bruder's library will probably be controversial, it may bust the budget, and it could be terrific.

Bruder is 43, boasts an unconventional background, and is as close to a hippie architect as one can find circa 1990. He studied sculpture, not architecture, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and came to Arizona in 1967 for a brief apprenticeship with Paolo Soleri. His hair is long, he has a scruffy beard, and he has not recently been sighted in coat and tie. He and his wife, an archaeologist, still live in the 850-square-foot house he designed and built in New River for $12,000 in 1975. (It won an Architectural Record award in 1977.)

Luxury, for Bruder, is not surrounding himself with fine things, but working and talking design eighteen hours a day. He'll be driving down the Black Canyon Freeway at seventy miles an hour, suddenly recall some obscure Italian building, and for the edification of his saucer-eyed passengers, take both hands off the wheel to sculpt its shape in the air.

"He's relentless," says Steve Martino, a Scottsdale landscape architect who has worked on several projects with Bruder. "He lives and breathes architecture; I don't think I've ever heard him talk about anything else."

His clients notice that relentlessness. "He pushes real hard," says Rick Karber, president of IMCOR, an air-conditioning and sheet-metal contractor. Bruder designed Karber's house and IMCOR's office building. "He's a very good listener, he sees what you'll take, and then if you say, `I don't understand this,' or `I don't want to do this,' he'll back off for a while--and then later come right back at you. Of all the confrontations we had over this building [IMCOR], I probably won one of a hundred. And we got a wonderful building."

Karber adds that in both his house and office building, Bruder stretched the budget--"a lot." This is hardly uncommon among architects, the one kind of artist who always gets to spend other people's money. In Bruder's case, the reason is an obsessive perfectionism. Every detail has to be utterly correct. And he has to control everything.

"For a landscape architect, he's not that much fun to work with," laments Martino. "He gives me a free hand on plants, but he always wants to do the hardscape himself--and that's what interests me, too, because it's the stage set for things to happen. "When they're in school, architecture students want to design everything in a building from the structure to the doorknobs. Will is the one practicing architect I know who actually does it. Other architects pull parts out of catalogues; he makes 'em up." In one Paradise Valley house Bruder designed, he spent half a day on the construction site installing the cabinet knobs himself. No one else would have done it correctly--that is, perversely. The knobs on every right-hand door are about an inch farther inboard than their companions on the left-hand doors. Why, for Pete's sake? Bruder obscurely mumbles something about "the tension of asymmetry." Later, in an office building, trying to explain a chest-high door pull, he says it's "to let you experience a door differently."

This sounds like classic architect's bull drool, but it may not be. Bruder isn't given to posturing. He simply wants the people who use his buildings to notice, in every waking moment, that their environment was designed--it didn't just happen.

One word keeps turning up, like a leitmotif, in his talk: "magic." In his mind, architecture must create magic to be successful, and architectural magic is the joy of the unexpected. You're at your desk in this old warehouse-turned-office, a cloud drifts overhead, and suddenly, because of a strategic six-inch skylight, the mood of the room is transformed--and you haven't noticed why. Bruder has about 130 completed projects to his credit, all but a handful of them in the Valley. They're all small--warehouse remodels, a couple of car washes, numerous private residences. His largest project to date is the 15,000-square-foot Cholla Branch Library expansion at Metrocenter.

It's an odd building made of curving, billowing, colliding pieces. There's at least a distant reverberation of Soleri in it. Seen through a windshield several hundred feet away--which is the normal way we read architecture in Phoenix--it's a jungle of forms extruding, bumping, grinding. It's part pillbox, part airplane hangar, part airplane. It isn't beautiful; it is very interesting.

For Bruder, "interesting" is almost enough. He likes to tell a story about the Cholla Branch building that preceded this one. A cop, he says, stopped a woman for "cruising" at Metrocenter--she'd illegally driven past the same spot three times. "I was just trying to find the library," she pleaded.

"Library?" asked the cop. He'd never noticed it.
The new building won't evaporate from anyone's memory, particularly after venturing inside. It's a demonstration of Bruder's concept of luxury: not refined or fancy materials, not heart-pounding spaces, but stuffed with fetching architectural ideas.

The exposed air-conditioning ducts--a Bruder trademark--weave and writhe on the ceiling like boas with stomach cramps. Exposed electrical conduits snake vertically up the sides of the information booth, twisted into a sculpture by Bruder himself one May morning at 6 a.m. The checkout line is suggested by a sinuous yellow brick road--better, says Bruder, than channeling the crowds with ropes or barriers, which would subtly establish an authoritarian mood.

All the weaving and snaking happen downstairs, with the videos and Danielle Steel books. Upstairs, in adult nonfiction, the ducts are arrow-straight. "This is a serious place of learning!" explains Bruder, at least half-seriously.

Bruder has one other library under his belt, the Mesquite Branch at 4525 East Paradise Village Parkway North. Built in 1979, it's much less ambitious--and much less successful. It's all one room, 6,000 square feet under a sloping, concrete-beamed roof loosely inspired by the famous drafting room at Taliesin West. But this room, unlike Taliesin, and unlike Bruder's later work, is gray and dark. It begs for more color and daylight. Bruder is unrepentant; he still likes it.

The Paradise Valley house (its owners don't want their names published) is lovely. Imagine a triangular stone-and-copper hang glider poised for launch on a mountainside, then think of it lowering its wings and folding into the mountain so that it doesn't call attention to itself. Inside are exhilarating spaces--even the laundry room has a towering ceiling and a clerestory window with a dramatic view--and more signs of an obsessive Bruder. The study, for example, features a long, built-in, white oak desk shaped like a parallelogram. Bruder worried that the owner might buy an ordinary rectangular blotter to put on it, which would devastate the room, so he designed a parallelogrammatic blotter.

In the guest bathroom, as Bruder recalls, the building inspector turned to him and said, "Gotcha--no exhaust fan." But of course there was one; Bruder had craftily concealed it in an oaken slot over the john.

There is craftiness--no, it's art--even in Bruder's inner-city warehouse buildings. Offices in the Streech Electrical Company, 1425 East Washington, have inch-wide sliver windows that spray mysterious daylight onto galvanized steel panels. At night, from the alley out back, red neon lights glow through these slits, "just like a brothel," as Bruder mischievously explains.

Why bother to design a view that nobody but bums and prowlers will ever see? "Why not?" retorts Bruder. "Buildings don't have backs."

One other trademark of Bruder's design work is the use of materials, usually everyday ones, in unexpected contexts. A fence around a Northeast Phoenix house is made of three-quarter-inch rebar. The hallway in the IMCOR building is paneled with aluminum truck siding; walking down this hallway, you get this strangely kinetic feeling--you're used to seeing this stuff hurtling along at 75 miles an hour.

Explains Bruder, "I'm sure this comes from my background in sculpture. To me, there's nothing as poetic as the infinite possibilities of materials."

Driving past a freeway construction site, Bruder spots a parked truck with a load of curved steel drainpipes. "Look at those things!" he practically shouts. "They're beautiful!"

In a way, yes. Good thing, too. They may show up inside the Central Library.

A month ago Tucson opened its new Main Library, a $22 million white marble mausoleum--the description preferred by a majority of the infuriated citizens who've written letters to editors--designed by Anderson DeBartolo Pan Inc., Arizona's largest architectural firm.

ADP was a safe choice; with it, Tucson was guaranteed a competently engineered, mainstream modernist building. That is what it got: a library with the emotional temperature of a glacier, a downtown centerpiece that says nothing about the desert, a building whose interior spaces are hard to remember five minutes after you leave it.

For Phoenix, Bruder is the exact opposite choice: an unpredictable architect with no track record in major public buildings, a guy who loves to play jokes (his photographic art program for Streech includes very artful male nudes in the women's room, and vice versa), and a very small firm (Bruder has eight people, compared with ADP's army of 285. To handle the library, Bruder has associated with DWL Architects-Planners Inc., a larger firm).

Bruder has not yet started designing the building, but he has shaped a concept of it: a "lovable" building, he says, and one that feels at home in a hot, arid environment. Steve Martino will be designing the landscape. Together, Bruder says, "We're going to reintroduce the desert to the people of Phoenix."

Bruder is incapable of giving Phoenix a building as frigid and dull as the new Tucson library, but whether he can produce a great building is, at this point, an open-ended question. He, at least, is suffering no crisis of confidence.

"I'm not intimidated by it," he says. "Architecture is simply a matter of listening to people and solving their problems. This library is no more complicated in programming than a house or a car wash--there's just more of it.

"Everyone has great expectations of me on this project," he adds. "Yet it's about 10 percent of what I expect of myself."

Here is what he expects: "Everybody--laymen and [architectural] professionals alike--talks about the Arizona Biltmore as the touchstone of Phoenix for the last 65 years. I really want the Central Library to be the touchstone for the next 65 years."

Pullquotes running on first page are to be in hel bold; not chelt

Bruder's library will probably be controversial, it may bust the budget, and it could be terrific.

In one Paradise Valley house Bruder designed, he spent half a day installing the cabinet knobs himself. No one else would have done it correctly.

The exposed air-conditioning ducts--a Bruder trademark--weave and writhe on the ceiling like boas with stomach cramps.

Bruder worried that the owner might buy an ordinary blotter for the desk, so he designed a parallelogrammatic one.

"This library is no more complicated in programming than a house or a car wash--there's just more of it," Bruder says.


KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lawrence W. Cheek