Casa Schneider takes an unusually literal approach to the ideal of site-specific architecture. Consisting of two oblique bars that don’t quite touch, its sun-washed white plaster walls trace the contours of a wedge-shaped lot in Tucson’s Mercado district, a newish planned community near downtown. With its sharp-edge geometries and Bauhaus-inflected windows, it would seem to break with tradition, but is, in fact, a riff on the Mexican row house, a typology that Tucson has not embraced since Spaniards ruled the area.
Tucson has been undergoing a transformation and an influx of new ideas, says architect Luis Ibarra, who designed Casa Schneider with his wife and business partner, Teresa Rosano, AIA. This suburban-meets-urban enclave is on a remediated brownfield with access to light rail. “The concept for the development was to do a Mexican thing in terms of planning,” Luis says. “Zero lot lines where houses touch, like row houses, are a foreign concept out here. Back in the day when the Spanish were here, row houses were more common, and the developers thought it was a good planning model. They developed a small area of downtown with a bunch of multistory row houses, sort of retro but open-minded about modern style ideas.”
The building couldn’t be more different from the client’s previous house, which Ibarra Rosano completed in 2000. The firm’s first new-home commission, the Garcia Residence was a modest concrete block, steel, and glass house on a steep desert lot with commanding views of the Tucson Mountains. It caught the media’s attention and helped launch the couple’s career. In the two decades since, the owner had gotten married and had two children. “He and his wife wanted to be more in the city and set up a house they could age in,” Luis says. “So they called us and said, let’s do it again.”
An important part of the brief was to devise a multigenerational setup so that the husband’s widowed mother could live with them. She now occupies the studio above the garage, which is accessed by both an elevator and an exterior spiral stair. “They all cook together, and she watches the kids when the parents are working,” Luis says. “The house really facilitates all these connections, including to the community. The mom was in this little suburban house without a lot of connections to people. Now she takes the dogs for walks and has a lot of autonomy.”
Whether designing for a wide-open desert or a semi-suburban plot, the firm’s superpower is its ability to use a tricky piece of land as a springboard for felicity and surprise. As the architects say on their website, “These sites often yield very exciting designs if you respect the ‘rules’ of the land. The challenge in working with these sites is to harness the energy and spatial qualities that are already there without damaging or dominating them.”
In this case, the buildable plot wraps around a bend in the public plaza at the front of the house, while the garage is entered from an alley behind it. Luis and Teresa created a “bent trapezoid” by drawing simple, two-story rectangles that slip past each other, resulting in a triangular void that became an enclosed courtyard. One bar houses the garage and an open kitchen, dining, and living room. The other contains the primary suite and a stair hall leading up to a sitting room, two bedrooms, and a bath. “The two boxes fitting inside the property line end up creating this courtyard space outside the living room,” Luis says. “We do a lot of courtyards but have never done one with that shape. It was quite fun and a good space in the end.”
Twenty-one feet tall, the courtyard wall extends the line of the main bedroom bar toward the east, where it meets the garage corner. Narrowing to a point, the two walls don’t quite touch. An 8-inch gap lets sunlight through, while a 7-foot-high slot of frosted glass closes it off from the alley, keeping the dogs inside. “It was a simple way of getting closure and revealing the two planes that pinch into that corner,” Luis says. “It’s open above the glass, so you have a release of this space, and you have a sense of the alley on the other side and the cars coming and going.”
This release also occurs on the front of the house. Where the two volumes meet at the entrance, a blade of glass runs from the ground to the roof. Those gestures set up a dynamic dialogue between public and private space. “These two walls want to touch, but I like keeping the tension of them not touching and the energy of the space,” Luis says. “The two rectangles are edging a plaza community space, and it helps to maintain that same concept of separating. But it doesn’t feel constrained. Even there you’re connected to the expanse of the site.” He adds, “It’s very different from what we did for their first house, where we also connected the inside to something outside. When we got this urban site, we thought, what will we do here that plays off some of the themes we created in the first house?”
Folds and Facets
With the site and floor plan sorted out, the exterior evolved as an update of traditional architecture. It is built of concrete block with integrally colored plaster, like Tucson’s oldest dwellings, but composed as a modernist abstraction. Angled window wells protrude from the smooth plaster walls on the north and south, casting shadows that shift in the desert sunlight and diffusing the interior light. “In a lot of Mexican houses, you find these windows cased in cut stone, often with a bit of a flair but very symmetrical,” Luis says. “When we were playing around with how to represent that, we had the idea of bending and folding the planes to distort the light; really, what those stone carvings are doing is playing with light and shadow. We were trying to do that in a very minimal way. They’re kind of like distorted pyramids mounted on the wall. The planes are twisting slightly; as they twist, there is a different coloration and aspect to the light. Each one has a slightly different angle, and on the inside you can sit in the slanted pockets. In my mind they have chameleon eyes, looking in different directions.”
Most of the windows are operable casements, and Luis originally envisioned molding the surrounds in precast concrete. His builder had a better idea. “I got really nervous about weight; how do you shore them up temporarily?” says general contractor and architect Page Repp Jr., AIA. “We devised a different approach, in which a steel frame would create the overall shape, and you insert the window in that and finish it conventionally. Luis was able to make those windows more dramatic in the steel frame version than he would have been able to in the concrete version.” One of the architects at Page’s firm, Repp+McLain Design & Construction, modeled all the windows, designing and cutting individual steel ribs on a plasma table in the office.
A dark, origami-like gate on a front corner of the house underscores that motif. Two stories tall, it is made of rusting steel, with trapezoidal elements zigging back and forth and frosted glass inside the faceted openings. More sculpture than gate, it encloses a yoga patio that opens out from the primary bedroom—another private space on a public edge.
In fact, it is the two-story wooden door that clearly marks the entrance. Although it appears as one continuous door, the top 6 feet, 8 inches is a fixed panel that forms a parapet enclosing a “sky courtyard” and roof garden. Inside the story-and-a-half main level, the earthy surfaces continue. Drywall with a fine silica finish produces a warm, plastered look, while rift white oak plywood ceilings have battens that reference the exposed beams in Tucson’s barrio houses. “I thought the beams would be expensive and not necessary,” Luis says. “What I was really after was rhythm, and I took from the Midwest a board and batten ceiling that gives some nice warmth and is better for the environment.” Cooking appliances are hidden behind an oak millwork wall that wraps through the dining and living areas as counter-height storage topped with black raw steel. The effect is simple and serene.
Also contained within the millwork is the living room fireplace. Its vent system is made from raw steel, laser-cut in the “sugar skull” pattern of a classic Mexican party banner. With characters depicting the family members, it replicates the papel picado (poked paper) technique in a Day of the Dead theme. “When we were trying to solve the venting problem with the fireplace, it was about the same time people were starting to talk about the parade,” Luis says. “I had the idea of creating not just a series of holes, but something a bit more fun.”
Concrete flooring flows out to dark concrete pavers in the courtyard, which in some ways is the house’s emotional center. Movies are projected onto the two-story stairwell wall, and a linear fireplace radiates warmth on cool nights. Of course, a courtyard is also a timeless strategy for relieving desert heat, and this one goes a step further. Cool air is piped down through the fireplace chimney, making it a comfortable place to gather even in the summer. Opposite the living room, a bench bends into the north wall, softening the severe geometry. Here too, a spiral stair supplies patina and a sculptural presence. Made of a single sheet of Cor-Ten steel, it curls up to the rooftop garden and in-law flat.
Casa Schneider makes many poetic moves, but for Luis, it is also about the passage of time. “The clients enjoyed the other house and talked about never leaving it,” he says. “But this new project alludes to the idea that our bodies change. The other house was full of steps, which was a challenge for his mother. This one has steps, too, but it’s organized with the kids on the upper level, parents below, and an elevator for mom. What’s cool is that all the spaces get used every day. It’s almost like the house has become part of their family because of the way it participates in their daily lives. That, for me, has been a mark of success.”
Architect: Luis Ibarra and Teresa Rosano, AIA, principals in charge; Janeth Vega-Flores, Sarah Luck, Ibarra Rosano Design Architects, Tucson, Arizona
Builder: Repp+McLain Design and Construction, Tucson
Landscape design: The Garden Gate, Tucson
Structural engineer: Harris Engineering Services, Tucson
Project size: 3,647 square feet
Site size: 0.1 acre
Construction cost: Withheld
Photography: Bill Timmerman, Damien Rodarte
Cabinet hardware: Hafele
Doors/Windows: Weiland from Andersen
Elevator: Symmetry Elevators
Faucets: Hansgrohe, Grohe, Badeloft
Lighting: Artemide, Turbino
Linear shower drain: Schluter Systems
Outdoor fireplace: Spark Modern Fires
Outdoor Grill: Lynx Grills
Skylights: Wasco from VELUX
Tile: Daltile, Elite Tile, Itona Tile