Nelson Fine Arts Center, Arizona
State University, Tempe, 1989 and La Luz Community Center, 1970.
Essay was published in Korea C3 Monograph.
On the face of it, the architecture of Antoine Predock
changed dramatically in 1985. Fresh from six months as a Fellow of the American Academy
in Rome, Predock that year won the competition for the Nelson Fine Arts Center in Tempe,
Arizona (1985-89). The modernist vernacular and earthen forms of his initial practice in
New Mexico had apparently been abandoned, with only the visual one-liner of his crimson
United Blood Services Building in Albuquerque (1980-82) to anticipate his turn in Tempe
to a seductively cinematic architecture of eye-grabbing imagery and scripted suspense.
Instantly marketable, the Fine Arts Center was compared to a movie set for Raiders of the
Lost Ark, while Acura luxury sedans were posed in advertisements before the building’s outdoor
bleachers. Inspiration, legend, and irony ran together in a postmodern hypertext of publicity
that soon made Predock into a superstar, cast variously in the mythic roles of desert shaman or
Western outlaw, who rode into town on his Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle to challenge the architectural
establishment. Competitions and commissions followed after Tempe in a rush, spreading Predock’s
reputation for renegade wizardry through residential, commercial, and institutional projects built
coast to coast as well as abroad.
The institutional works documented in this monograph
would thus seem to have a truncated genealogy going back no farther than the mid-1980s.
Like the Nelson Fine Arts Center, they display boldly fractured geometries intersected by
ramps, processional spaces, and monolithic planes. Their insistent theatricality as much
as visual bravado looks at odds with the reticent deference to place that typified such
earlier designs in Albuquerque as the housing community of La Luz (1967-74) and the Rio
Grande Nature Center (1978-82). Instead of pushing forward, those projects retreat into their
sites, nestling into the ground and behind berms to shape themselves unobtrusively as muted
backdrops to spaces that focus our attention back out, away from the architecture to the views.
Predock himself speaks of the hard-core environmentalism and the minutely detailed topographic
analyses which preoccupied him at the time, when architecture meant above all the process of
solving practical problems in the field, when La Luz began with a box of index cards that
carefully collated the relevant ecological data, and when both La Luz and the Rio Grande
Nature Center sought to minimize their physical presence while drawing their identity and
orientation from the surrounding landscape.
The architect now feels a “funny estrangement” from La Luz,
and says that he and the developer (Ray Graham) were blissfully naive in undertaking a
tightly planned community that rejected the norms of suburban sprawl. This does not mean,
however, that the lessons learned at the start of his career have ever been forgotten.
Indeed, in distinguishing himself as a seasoned architect from the youthful novice, Predock
is not so much denying his past as measuring the distance travelled professionally as well
as personally in the last thirty-plus years. Even if it is only as a lost love, some
fundamental piece of La Luz lies lodged within Predock’s thinking, haunting his present
practice with ghosts from the past. Such traces of the past are sometimes shunted from
conscious thought like old photographs shut away in closed drawers, yet they survive,
awaiting excavation and recovery from what Walter Benjamin called the theater of memory:
out of the past, we dig up “images, severed from all earlier associations, that stand—like
precious fragments or torsos in a collector’s gallery—in the prosaic rooms of our later
understanding.” The key to comprehending any life’s effort comes in grasping the
persistence of an idea through its radical shifts in expression.
The persistent idea of Predock’s work, the one that makes
La Luz still relevant despite the estrangement, is landscape. Predock remembers that
he got his “first glimmer of the landscape as an architectural abstraction” when he
intuitively related La Luz to the silhouetted escarpment of basalt cliffs rising above
the Rio Grande Valley to the west of Albuquerque. The valley’s visual logic, sketched
in 1961 as a few elongated horizontals punctuated by vertical trees, leads formally to
La Luz, situated in a 1967 sketch between mountain, river, and mesa. In this graphic
translation of the land into architecture, the architect prefigured the geologic
morphologies at play in his current projects, which become so many upthrust tectonic
plates colliding in a metaphor for the restless shaping and reshaping of the earth itself.
Landscape, as J.B. Jackson explains in “The Word Itself,”
means “a composition of man-made spaces on the land,” from the word’s two component syllables
of land, meaning a measurable portion of the earth’s surface marked by boundaries, and scape,
meaning a composition of similar objects. When the word was reintroduced into English during
the eighteenth century, landscape signified, not the view itself, but “a picture of it, an
artist’s interpretation.” Over the course of the century, landscape evolved from meaning a
picture of the view, to the view itself, to finally a physical site that had been made over
to recreate views inspired by pictures—especially the pastoral landscapes painted by Claude
Lorrain. Often described as “scenes,” as in the “scene of nature,” such picturesque landscapes
composed a site with carefully staged allusions to the arts imitating nature (Apollo and the
Muses, Narcissus and Echo, etc.), which the spectator would activate by wandering from view
to view. The illusion of agency, of being in control of ones actions when in fact those
actions were dictated by the landscape, was an important aspect of the picturesque: to walk
into a picture of the view required accepting its rules of composition.
Predock began drawing the landscape while still in school.
Studying architecture at the University of New Mexico in 1958-61 (before earning his B. Arch.
from Columbia in 1962), he regularly slipped over to the Art Department to take courses with
the sculptor John Tatschl and the painters Elaine de Kooning and Walter Kuhlman. Tatschl
taught him how to see, urging him to look without preconceptions at the thing itself when
sketching its form. A medium shared by painters, sculptors, and architects, drawing provided
Predock with the means to visualize architecture’s reciprocity with landscape by delineating
their equivalencies of line, plane, light, and shadow. De Kooning and Kuhlman showed Predock
how seeing and making ran together in a dialog between visuality and materiality mediated by
the human body: painting was for them a visceral act that engaged the painter in physical gestures
of layering pigment onto the canvas, pushing the stuff around until the surface thickened into a
structural mass. Predock’s sketches, some drawn in ink with the improvised brush of a stick or
feather found on the ground, record impulsive exchanges between the act of looking, of sighting the
landscape in a line, and the act of drawing, of the hand’s intuitive rush across a surface.