Finding joy

PHOTOS: Jeff Goldberg & Bill Timmerman | WORDS: Trevyn McGowan

After talking to American architect Rick Joy, TREVYN MCGOWAN touches on the brilliant artistic qualities in how he executes his vision on each project.

If I had an ultimate wish granted and could commission any architect in the world, it would be Tucson-based Rick Joy.

Having been an ardent admirer of his work for almost 10 years, I feel that his execution of “home”, providing serenity and stillness whilst amplifying the drama of the surrounding landscape, provides the perfect sanctuary.

In South Africa, where we have such extraordinary natural backdrops, his ecologically conscious, environmentally discreet, climatically sensitive architectural sculptures of restraint and beauty are the perfect inspiration.

The foreword to Rick’s book Desert Works begins with a gentle description of a camping trip with his son and the reflection of a meteor shower in his eyes. This intimate anecdote introduces the award-winning architect’s work and, even though his practice now undertakes large international projects, he retains the personal, authentic, rigorous purity of his first buildings where he served as both architect and contractor.

Influenced by music

Rick set out studying art and music, followed by a 12-year career as an on-site carpenter that ultimately led him to architecture, which he sees as a coming together of these diverse fields. Indeed, his approach today is still greatly influenced by his passion for music – the “silences” in his buildings are as essential as the “notes” and he perceives himself to be a conductor mediating the diverse processes that come into play.

Originally from the green landscapes of Maine, Rick studied architecture in Arizona and on completion of his degree in 1990 found that the majestic scale, tactility and cultural diversity of the area had seduced him.

His early projects were predominantly residential and Joy personally oversaw the construction on site, finding the process of the physically materialising envelope extremely soothing. This engagement with the building phase and the collaborative problem solving gave the practice greater quality control and room for exploration.

With any of his projects, local building tradition and history are the foundation and the multi-sensual aspects of the site are then explored.

The sounds and smells and how these might be experienced; the crunch of rock underfoot or relief of trickling water in the desert heat; a tiny visual detail or grand expanse of scenery, to be hidden and then revealed; how best to capture the light and the effects of climatic conditions. All are examined and elaborated into a lifestyle proposition suiting the place and individual.

With intuition and sensitivity, Joy concentrates on heightening the experience of being in the space, and in the land, making it feel more real and vital.

There is a juxtaposition between solid mass and “groundedness” on the one side and on the other, a sense of treading lightly. It is this opposition that creates energy: The concept of the uninterrupted walled courtyard reaching high to reveal the sky (400 Rubio Studio), or elevating three cubes off the desert floor, touching the ground gently and consequently cladding the boxes in steel (Casa Jax).

Simplicity of form and shape

The seamlessness of construction, the absence of expected, standard detailing and the merging of one material into another, results in an elegance and simplicity of form and shape. Through the seeming simplicity of structure and minimal range of materials comes an ultimate luxury, a sense of tranquillity and unforced glamour.

“There usually are challenges in how to solve a connection, a corner detail, yet the biggest challenge is to keep it simple. In this regard, I might say I am still interested in the same problem solving as, no matter if working with rammed earth as construction material, steel-clad facades, wood-sided or shingle-clad structures or brick, stone and other mass – the objective is to let each construction method hold its ground and be present as what it is.”

The exterior world is brought sharply into relief through huge sheets of glass, flush and seemingly punctured through the raw surface of the walls, and the journey of the sun is captured through a variety of apertures at various levels. There is a sense of calm protection but an exhilarating “oneness” with the extraordinary landscape beyond.

Whilst Rick Joy Architects has grown from the early years and he can no longer direct construction personally, projects of various scope both in the United States and internationally, including the extraordinary Amangiri for Aman Resorts in Utah designed in collaboration with under I-10 Studio, call for travel and “consistent implementation right to the material detail, which is crucial to the atmosphere of the place.”

Three projects that stand out for Rick are:

– Catalina House, with its combination of mass and light, of protection and exposure, of enclosure and reveal, offering space for social gathering and privacy at the same time;
– Desert Nomad House, which touches the ground lightly and respects the landscape in its magnificent settings by framing the views specific to each time of the day; and
– Taos Hacienda, a Hispanic hacienda typology with a large working courtyard. Like a fort, the house is positioned to the edge of the mesa with selected views to the outside. As the light renders on the compacted earth, and with its massive vaulted ceilings, a sensation of serenity is forged in the everyday.

Living consciously is key

When asked about environmental sensitivity, Joy responds that he believes in strengthening the client’s awareness of living in the spaces consciously, which often seems more sustainable than applying the latest technology. He approves of low-tech solutions, site protection, responsible use of sensible materials and building to withstand time.

As respect for his “personal” approach to architecture grows, and the demands of travel and constant transitions encroach, focusing on the present moment and the sensual exploration of a condition become his greatest challenge.

“Being an architect in many ways draws me away from making buildings. It is in many regards a profession of mediation and communication of interest, of balance and relation. The trick is to allow enough time to focus on the actual consideration of ‘living/occupying space’ …and of finding the calm.”

• Rick Joy Architects Ltd:,, +1 520 624 1442