Haute Houses

Leesa Stuck's house is where birds go to kill themselves.

"They fly directly into the glass walls," Stuck says, pointing a bare foot at one of the several floor-to-ceiling windows in her Paradise Valley home. "Mostly sparrows. You know, the little brown kind. They don't know about glass. They're just birds. They think they're flying into our house, and then they're dead."

Stuck feels bad about the dead birds. She tried hanging tapestries over the windows in the den, because those are the most murderous windows. But her husband made her take them down.

"He says what's the point of living in a glass house if you're going to cover it all up?" Stuck says, giggling and shaking her Rod-Stewart-shag-cut head. But the question that Stuck has secretly been asking herself is one that many locals have been asking more and more lately themselves: Why, here in the desert, would anyone live in a glass house at all?

Yet they're popping up all over town, in a city that never completely cools down in the summer, one where nighttime lows have increased nearly 20 degrees in the last 30 years, where houses made of heat-generating glass and metal don't seem like an energy-efficient choice. For proof, locals need look no further than the infamously impossible-to-cool Sandra Day O'Connor Courthouse; Marwan al-Sayed's equally notorious hot-as-blazes "House of Earth and Light," or any number of un-air-conditionable homes which, like Stuck's, run up gigantic utility bills in the summer and look like castoffs from Jetsons: The Movie.

There's the low, glass-fronted condo complex on North 36th Street known as The Boardwalk, one of renowned desert architect Al Beadle's more famous designs, which Stuck visited on a recent American Institute of Architects home tour and which she describes as looking like "a really beautiful car-rental agency." And the well-known Xeros Residence, a lofty, cantilevered glass box that towers over a late-1950s neighborhood, its exposed steel designed to rust over so that it blends in with the nearby mountain preserve. There's the stackable prefab v2 project, which promises to deliver as many design-it-yourself housing units as Phoenix can sustain.

And there's Stuck's own home, which she calls "My Der Wienerschnitzel" because of its tall, peaked roof, and which she claims to love even though it's costing her a fortune to keep cool; even though she has to cook with her microwave all summer because her gas range heats up her whole house so unbearably.

It's weird to see these often energy-inefficient homes going up all over town. What's weirder is that the futuristic look of all this glass-and-metal-and-Crayola-bright exterior construction doesn't say "sand and cactus" so much as it says "futuristic movie set." How we got from the mud huts of Old West Casa Grande to a town so full of glass houses it's starting to look like a prototype for Disney's Tomorrowland is a tale full of the usual suspects found in any story set in Phoenix: greedy civic leaders; naive businesspeople; unsophisticated consumers.

These are the players who are helping erect a skyline filled with the sort of eccentric modern architecture once offered only by high-end builders to folks who wanted a custom home that made a statement and could afford a seven-digit budget. Which meant that pricey, glass-box architecture was once tucked behind giant walls in the more remote reaches of the desert or in suburban Paradise Valley, where turreted faux castles spring up alongside Tuscan villas every other week. But these Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced glass boxes have lately been springing up on our city streets with regularity, made affordable by developers who are courting a new generation of homeowners who want, apparently, to live in toaster ovens.

There's The Vale, those big, boxy, bright-green condos over on University Drive in Tempe, designed by architect Will Bruder, who's wrapped them in shiny sheets of metal just as he did with Burton Barr Library and nearly all of his best-known buildings.

Or the Beadle View lofts at Catalina Drive and Third Street. Coming soon is Morningside Eight, a set of crayon-bright, glass-fronted "row houses" on Sixteenth Street near Indian School Road.

And Haven, a stucco apartment complex in Tempe that's being completely overhauled to look like something out of a low budget sci-fi film. And perhaps most prominently there's v2, a collection of prefab glass boxes that homebuyers can use to create an Erector Set dream home anywhere they want to.

This new glass-and-metal trend is what ASU's Harvey Bryan calls "the last remnants of Modernism." Bryan, a professor of architecture who champions sustainable building practices, makes no attempt to disguise his disdain over this glass-box craze, which he says grew out of the heralded designs of groundbreaking architects like the late Frank Lloyd Wright, whose houses combined steel, concrete, and glass with natural elements, and Beadle, one of the pioneers of Arizona architecture, who died in 1998. Beadle's hallmarks included the steel frames, stilted foundations, and wide expanses of glass that typified commercial buildings throughout the Valley in the 1950s and 1960s.

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.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela