This article appeared in the April 2004 issue of Design + Architecture magazine.
Quiet integration of structure and landscape, plus an architectural image born of the soul—these are elements that set Line and Space apart from other architectural firms. Located in a small, remodeled bungalow across the street from the Univers.ity of Arizona School of Architecture in Tucson, the yard littered with what seem to be experiments in materials and design, the firm has created innovative and ecologically sound architectural projects for more than two decades.
Les Wallach, F.A.I.A., founded Line and Space in 1978, after coming to his career in a roundabout way. Renowned for such Arizona architectural gems as the Sonoran Desert Museum, Boyt:e Thompson Arboretum and a portfolio of private homes across the state, Wallach creates harmony between man and nature, turning brick and mortar into living works of art.
Wallach was born and raised in the tiny Arizona town of Superior. His father was an engineer, his mother, an artist who left Esquire magazine in New York to move to Arizona. That background of science and art is evident in every architectural design Wallach undertakes.
After graduating from the University of Arizona with a degree in engineering in 1968, Wallach left for Vietnam-not to fight a war, but as an engineer working on buildings and infrastructure in the Republic of South Vietnam. After returning home, he found himself looking for something different. His mother, recognizing his ability to combine science and art, encouraged him to look into architecture. Wallach’s only concern was that he didn’t know how to draw. Undeterred, he entered U of A’s School of Architecture at the ripe old age of 27.
Never one to do anything halfway, and worried that he was “too old” to start a new career, Wallach finished the program in record time. He credits much of the work he does today to two of his instructors. Kirby Lockard. his drawing instructor, taught him the necessary art skills, while Tim White, his programming and site-analysis instructor, taught him to consider even the smallest nuances of sites before launching into a design.
Those foundations remain the backbone of his work today. When starting any project, Wallach begins by trying to get a sense of place. He says the success of his designs is simple: “It’s taking the trouble to go beyond the norm to understand the site.”
The best examples of this are the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, Wyoming and his own Arroyo House in Tucson. Two more different environments would be difficult to find, but in both cases, Wallach was able to blend the building into the land by making the transition between physical and visual almost seamless. At the Interpretive Center, the shifting sands of the prairie proved to be both a challenge and an effective tool. The story of the migration from East to West carries through to the building. Set where the wind flows east to west, the crowds also move in this direction. A long, deep-blue wall cuts into the slope, anchoring the building and making the structure an extension of the land. “Synchronicity,” Wallach says with a smile.
Arroyo House is built on a site that is bisected by a deep arroyo. Rather than filling in the natural wash or building to one side of the site, Wallach used the natural feature to divide the house into two distinct zones: one private for sleep, study and work; the other public, open to recreation and social activities. An e.1pansive bridge across the arroyo connects both areas.
In addition to the flow of the land, Wallach also designs with care for the natural environment. The Arroyo House, with over 3,300 square feet of floor space, uses technology as a shield against the harsh desert environment. The roof area comprises 8,000 square feet, providing overhangs that block the summer sun while allowing the winter sun inside.
Massive walls and floors of scored concrete act as heat sinks, stabilizing the temperatures year-round. The plumbing system is on a loop, diverting and recycling water from sinks, the washer, and showers for secondary use. The home even works during the night, when upstream windows in the bridge capture breezes off nearby mountains and distribute them throughout the home.
Blending his own vision with the needs of homeowners and the environment is not a simple, short or easy process. After evaluating the site, the architects at Line and Space develop a detailed architectural program. This program not only outlines Wallach ‘s philosophical statements but also examines the homeowner’s needs, budget and desired functions for the home. The process is the same for commercial buildings, which are carefully evaluated for their uses, audience and project goals.
Throughout his career, Wallach has studied various architects and credits many with the vision he has today. He looks to Frank Lloyd Wright as the father of the modern masters, but also recognizes the influence of such greats as Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Judith Chafee and Ray Kappe.
Richard Neutra, an Austrian-born and trained architect who came to the U.S. in 1923, was the master of melding indoor and outside spaces, known for the clever ways he extended architectural spaces into the landscape. In his own work, Wallach creates tempered microclimates that enable people to better utilize outside desert spaces. A prime example of this is the Boyce Thompson Arboretum. Concrete and stone walls penetrate the inside, while wood ceiling material and brick flooring extend from interior to exterior to join the areas visually. Shading, exterior cooling and heating help to extend the visual changes into sensory transitions, making the spaces usable year-round, even during the 100-plus degree days of summer.
Tempered microclimates are not unique to commercial buildings. In the Campbell Cliffs residence in Tucson, Wallach added multiple evaporatively cooled, tempered exterior microclimates. The use of this large, covered exterior space eliminates the need for refrigerating great expanses of the interior and creates additional living space.
Another great influence on Wallach, John Lautner apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright’s hand and Lautner’s integration of water and the surrounding landscapes are evident in every Wallach design. Like Lautner, Wallach also widely integrates concrete into his designs and believes in trying new materials and processes.
Judith Chafee was another mentor for Wallach, and Wallach speaks reverently of the Tucson architect who died in 1998, praising the impact she had on the architectural world and the way she was able to combine architecture and the environment. In a profile he wrote about her for Civitas Sonoran, an organization Wallach founded in 1998 to heighten awareness of the melding of architecture and the environment, he says that Chafee’s designs “responded to the land in ways that few other 20th century buildings managed in any place. lt was usually strong and authoritative, riding the landscape with no apology for its presence, yet profoundly respectful.”
Finally, he credits Ray Kappe, founder of the world-renowned SCI-Arc school of architecture in California, which was created as “an inquiry into the very nature of existence through the medium of architecture.” The hallmarks of Kappe’s work are clear systems, harmony with nature and environmental considerations-all hallmarks of Wallach’s own gifts.
Wallach’s background as an engineer adds a unique dimension to his architectural practice. Line and Space occasionally serves as general contractor on its own projects. This was the case with the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum Restaurant/Gallery Complex and an exquisite 25,000-square-foot residence, Campbell Cliffs, in Tucson’s exclusive Cobblestone community.
The Campbell Cliffs home, incised into solid bedrock below a sheer south face of the Santa Catalina Mountains, is a decade-long project that integrates environment and architecture. The residence is constructed with 14,000 square feet of Coconino sandstone from Ash Fork, Arizona, exposed concrete, wood, and glass. Despite the massive size of the home, it rises only four feet above the highest point on the lot. Massive glass walls offer views of the city and mountains, while cantilevered roof planes protect the home from the harsh Arizona sun. There is a unique subtlety in every aspect of the home and in the creative use of line and space. Walls seem to float. and even massive rock and concrete fireplaces hang as if in midair.
In 1993, Wallach was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in recognition of bis impact on architectural design. He has received nearly 50 design awards for individual projects, as well as the prestigious Western Mountain Region AIA Silver Medal for his entire body of work.
ln 1999, Wallach was selected as one of the University of Arizona’s top 100 graduates of the century. His firm, Line and Space, was designated the 1999 American Institute of Architects Western Mountain Region firm of the year.
With such a rich history and so many accomplishments, what does the future bold for Les Wallach? “We have a small staff. There are 10 of us here,” he says. “We have limited our size in favor of pursuing only those commissions to which we feel we can bring special understanding.”
Current projects include the museum, school and interpretive center at the Red Rock Canyon National Preservation Area in Nevada and consulting with An Giang University in Vietnam. Red Rock Canyon National Preservation Area is a working museum that helps educate children about the environment. The project in Vietnam works with the government to create an environmentally friendly series of university campuses across the impoverished countryside. That project offers a unique set of challenges, including a budget smaller than most inner-city homes in the United States. “They need our assistance, though,” Wallach says as he shakes his head. “We’ll see what we can do for them.”
Recently, Wallach sat at his desk in his quiet Tucson office and fingered a piece of thin, flexible material. The small square looked like netting one might find on a wedding veil, only in a shimmering copper color. Wallach held it out and a smile cut across his face. “This is a super-strong material, a metal mesh,” he said. “It can be used in ways we don’t even know yet.” He glanced at pictures of designs from throughout his career and moved the netting between his fingers. “Just imagine the possibilities,” he said.