Will Bruder

Will Bruder

Valley architect is the creator of oases big and small

By Scott Shumaker

As architect Will Bruder talks about design and his many building projects across Arizona and beyond, he speaks quickly and earnestly, moving nimbly from one big idea in Arizona architecture to another.

Talking with Bruder about his passion feels like stealing a glimpse of Arizona’s architectural landscape from a 30,000-foot perspective. He’s developed this rarified point of view by apprenticing with architectural giants in his formative years and going on to design some of Arizona’s most-celebrated buildings over his 45-year career (and counting). 

If you’ve spent any time in the Valley, you’ve probably walked through a Bruder building—or at least noticed the striking lines and interesting touches as you walked or drove past one (as an enthusiast of urban walkability, he’d probably prefer that you did the former.

It would be difficult to overstate Bruder’s impact on the look of contemporary Arizona architecture. In addition to completing numerous important commissions, he’s mentored many of the top architects in the region today. His distinctive brand of desert organic architecture, or “of-the-land modernism,” to use a term dropped in his reflections, has inspired countless designers in Arizona and across the world.

Bruder’s work in Scottsdale provides a good sampling of the range of projects in his complete body of work. In North Scottsdale, for example, he’s designed exquisite single-family homes that seem to grow out of the desert landscape, as well as a light and airy corporate building oozing architectural style. His highest-profile buildings in Scottsdale are probably the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, the Loloma 5 condominiums, the Henkel Building, and most-recently, the El Dorado apartments.

Jim Coffman, a landscape architect who has worked with Bruder on several projects, including the Pond House in Cave Creek, thinks that one of Bruder’s contributions has been inspiring Valley cities to elevate their architectural games. Bruder’s 1995 design for Phoenix’s Burton Barr Central Library, for example, attracted attention in the design world and demonstrated to cities and the public what a bold and well-designed public building can contribute to a city.

“It’s pretty normal now for municipalities…to seek out really unique architecture for their public buildings, and I think Will was kind of at the forefront of that,” Coffman says.

The Will Bruder aesthetic

Architectural superstar Frank Lloyd Wright put Arizona on the design map when he decided to build Taliesin West, his architecture school and winter home in Scottsdale. Bruder designs, broadly speaking, in the same architectural tradition as Wright and even boasts an intellectual genealogy to the famed architect (Bruder apprenticed with Paolo Soleri, a student of Wright’s). But Bruder, everyone agrees, has put his own stamp on Wright’s organic architecture.

Douglas Sydnor, principal architect with Douglas Sydnor Architect and Associates, says local architects respect the way Bruder has formed an individual style.

“Yes, (Bruder’s) immersed himself in Mr. Wright’s work,” Sydnor says. “But he’s also reinterpreted it to the 21st century and his personal priorities as an architect…I think that’s the most important idea behind Will. Yes, it’s an organic persuasion, however, he’s really reinterpreted it in new and different ways that bring it current.”

Jon Talton, a Phoenix historian and former newspaper columnist, sees Bruder as a torch-bearer for fine architecture in the face of modern forces that often work against good design.

“What people don’t realize is Arizona has a rich history of architecture,” he says. “Will is both the inheritor of this legacy but also carries it on in his own distinct way.”

While rooted in history and place, Bruder’s buildings are unmistakably modern. They are adapted to the individual landscape and climate of each site, observes Jim Coffman, but Bruder’s buildings still make a statement.

“It’s all very compatible with the desert,” Coffman says, “but architecturally, and the form and the shape of it, is still all very architectural and very intentional. I think he always wants his buildings to be better. Better than the context, and to be something more special.”

“He finds ways to both make a new project organically fit into the cityscape in which it’s put and yet give it a stimulating new take on things,” Talton says. “And you certainly find this in the (Loloma 5 condominium) projects in downtown Scottsdale… Those were either welcomingly or jarringly modernistic, and yet they fit, and they are at the fine-grained human level rather than harsh and off-putting.”

Bruder, who earned a fine arts degree in sculpture from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, creates bold, modern architecture, but rather than a modern architecture simply dropped into the Sonoran Desert, which many architects and businesses have done, Bruder’s work is modern architecture with the desert embedded in its DNA.

“I think he was a pioneer in kind of establishing a whole new aesthetic for desert architecture that’s kind of raw materials, but still very responsive to the desert here and really unique to Arizona — like you don’t see it anywhere else — which I really love,” Coffman says. “Having spent now two years teaching in Arkansas and being kind of in the middle of the country and then coming back to Phoenix. I really, really appreciate the uniqueness of the landscape and of the architecture of Arizona. Will, I think, is one of the establishers of this new look; this new style that’s very, very Arizona.”

Everyone seems to agree that things that interested Bruder in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s have finally become normal in Arizona architecture. Bruder’s designs and ideas are a perfect fit for an era with a renewed interest in urban centers and buildings that respect the environment.

Creating oases

A word that comes up frequently in Bruder’s reflections is “oasis.” At one point he uses the metaphor of “creating oases” to describe his work, and he peppers his discussion of Arizona architecture with phrases like “the oasis idea” and “oasis living.” For Bruder, it seems, the concept of oasis is a major inspiration for his spaces in the Sonoran Desert.

Oasis living, Bruder says, is “the idea you have this tough desert out there and, how do you create sort of pockets with topography? With shade? With shadow? With materiality? With how buildings can sort of grow from the site rather than sit on top of the site.”

So, oasis means being suited to the environment, but to Bruder is also seems to represent a certain kind of feeling—the way he wants his buildings to make people feel when they walk inside them.

“I’m always looking for good examples of things that are mysterious. They invite you to an entrance but there’s a mystery of what’s beyond the wall,” he says. “What’s beyond on the oasis? What’s in the courtyard? What’s happening there?—and try to create homes, like Pond House, that you enter mysteriously from the desert. You go down into it, it sort of turns its back to the western sun, and it opens up to the southeast and the long distant views.”

Bruder is interested in creating places of shade and comfort in the desert, but he also seems interested in the feelings of discovering an oasis and of being in one. What is it like to arrive there and step into the shade from the desert?

When Bruder reflects on his long career, the idea of oasis takes on an even deeper significance. An oasis is a place of shade and water, but it is also a gathering place for people in the midst of a big, wild landscape—a place of culture and community in the midst of wilderness. One of Bruder’s complexities is that he is a lover of untrammeled nature, but he is also a lover of urban life.

“I guess I’m more interested in what I’ve been able to do with the multiples,” he says, referring to the many urban apartments and condominiums he has developed over the years. “I think those little compact, complex little groupings of structures — that have a spirit and a sense of unity — are, I think, my best accomplishments.”

Bruder walks the talk of urban density. He lived in unit one of Loloma 5 in Scottsdale, and the stories he tells seem to reveal his vision of what good design can do for the social life of a community.

“We’d be sitting on one of the cantilevered decks on a Sunday morning, reading the paper. Nobody knew we were there, and people were stopping and commenting (on the building). You know, it was catching their eyes, they were curious, they were interested. If we heard a conversation, often we’d engage in the conversation and pop our head over the balcony rail and invited people in if they seemed to be getting it and being curious,” he says.

The concept of an oasis, a place comfort and abundance in a desert, seems natural for an Arizona architect. “Oasis” even comes from an Egyptian word meaning “dwelling place.” And Phoenix and Scottsdale are natural oases, gathering places for desert rivers and streams. Bruder loves creating oases. The small, private oases he has created for connoisseurs of good design are highlights of his career, but Bruder’s higher ambition is to create larger, city-sized oases. ν