Essay by Christopher Mead
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Rio Grande Nature Center , Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1998 and Spencer Theater for the Performing Arts, Alto, New Mexico, 1997. 

This Essay was published in Korea C3 Monograph.

Collage and modeling, two techniques of assemblage borrowed from painting and sculpture, supplement drawing in Predock’s interdisciplinary method of design. Since at least the 1980s, he has started each project by fictionalizing its landscape as a journey of discovery with a mural-size collage fabricated from pastels, magic markers, postcards, and pictures clipped out of magazines. Mixing the pictorialism of painting with the constructivism of sculpture, the collage approaches architecture in scale by moving off the drafting table to stretch along a wall: we walk its length, engaging our bodies in the space of the collage and reenacting the architect’s gestural labor when first assembling the image. Predock then sculpts a clay model in sections of solid and void that plan the project volumetrically as a choreographed sequence of spaces. Using a sculptural medium to painterly effect, the model turns the fictive landscape of the two-dimensional collage into the material landscape of a three-dimensional prototype for the actual building.

La Luz marks the first time Predock brought his vividly pictorial imagination to bear on an architectural landscape, in a transmutation of nature into art that originates with the artist’s compulsive sketching: to draw the world is to make it real by realizing the world in a view of what the artist sees. La Luz also brought the architect face to face with modernity’s struggle between nature and culture, between the promise of permanence in our world and the inevitability of historical change. Trying simultaneously to belong to the past and the present, La Luz is a traditional village designed for the modern automobile, placed in the country but supported by the city, rural in image but urban in fact, built from vernacular adobe but finished with the industrial materials of concrete, milled lumber, and plate glass. The picturesque has been confronting similar discrepancies in its landscapes since the eighteenth century.

On a practical level, Predock resolved those contradictions by grounding the project in its programmatic separation of mechanized from pedestrian traffic, in an ecological sensitivity to climate, and in the structurally honest use of materials. Critically, however, nothing was resolved, only deferred through a brilliant design. La Luz is held together by the art rather than science of its coherently picturesque scheme of houses, greenswards, views, and landscape. Drawn into an harmonious image of culture respecting nature, La Luz sublimates by smoothing over the ruptures of its place in time, lulling us to experience the site passively, according to its own rules, wandering as in any picturesque landscape from scene to scene. The artifice of La Luz as a man-made composition is camouflaged by a seeming naturalness that makes everything seem inevitable, constant, immutable.

La Luz gave Predock national attention, and a reputation for regionalism he has been resisting ever since. The reaction came quickly, beginning with works like the First National Bank in Albuquerque (1971-72), and leading to the Rio Grande Nature Center. The program for a blind set into the marsh of a bird sanctuary justified the consistent use of cast-in-place concrete, but the rethinking of la Luz goes far beyond the material of adobe to address underlying assumptions about architecture and landscape. Abandoning the softness of rounded forms for hard-edged planarity, Predock built up the Nature Center from abrupt geometric fragments that reinforce the gritty industrial detailing of the building’s formwork, and the steel culvert of its entrance. Instead of nature and culture blending into some seamless unity, the Nature Center brings the two into a visible dialog of difference that flickers back and forth across the site: arriving by automobile in the parking lot, the visitor then decelerates into nature while walking through a grove of trees; the Center is initially hidden from sight within the swell of a grassy berm, until the visitor reaches the steel culvert that leads inside; from the building’s bunker-like concrete spaces, the visitor looks out again at the Rio Grande wetlands set against the distant profile of Sandia Peak.

Predock says he designed the Nature Center with a transit, plotting the site through a series of views that determined the random but hardly arbitrary pattern of apertures (instead of windows) set into the exterior wall. An instrument for viewing the landscape, the building is equally an instrument for making the visitor aware of what it means to view a landscape: the illusion of natural order so carefully composed at La Luz is called into question with an anti-composition of partial views, forms, and spaces. Restoring the agency lost at La Luz, the Nature Center leaves to every individual the task of constructing his or her own sense of place over time, in a reminder of the role played by culture in our perception of nature. This stress on our personal responsibility for the environment has obvious relevance to a center for the study of nature. It is also the moment in Predock’s career when his persistent idea of landscape shifted radically, from the picturesque naturalism of La Luz, with its regional focus on place, to the critical unfolding in subsequent projects of open-ended narratives, which locate us in the world by commenting historically on the space of our experience.

The Spencer Theater for the Performing Arts near Ruidoso in southern New Mexico (1994-1997) shapes its landscape with elemental clarity and power. Located in the middle of Fort Stanton Mesa, on an axis running with the summer sun from Sunset Peak in the east to Sierra Blanca in the west, the Spencer Theater is an eponymous white mountain whose inclined mass of limestone gathers up the ground as it rises to the sky in an archetypal image of earth touching heaven. Sierra Blanca, Sinai, Olympus, Fuji are all called upon, as cultural rather than purely natural models that interpret the world as a stage for our human actions, and aspirations. Like earlier man-made mountains, from the Pyramid of Cheops and the Tower of Babel to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, the Spencer Theater consolidates the cosmos in a highly abstract architectural form.

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