Phoenix architect uses desert landscape as inspiration, focuses on simplicity, sustainability

Phoenix architect Will Bruder chooses to re-imagine the desert landscape in his work. The designer of the Burton Barr Central Library discussed his approach to the trade at the Phoenix Art Museum Wednesday. (Jessica Zook/DD)

Attributes of the desert landscape are re-imagined in the work of Phoenix architect Will Bruder.

Bruder discussed Wednesday evening how facets of the desert landscape are transformed into his buildings at the Phoenix Art Museum during a lecture titled “Design for the Desert.”

Bruder has been involved in architecture for 40 years and has designed a number of renowned structures, including the Burton Barr Central Library and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

“I believe architecture is about balancing pragmatism and poetry,” Bruder said. “When you balance the two, that’s when magic happens.”

Bruder’s residential designs often meld into the landscape surrounding them; panels of glass float amid concrete walls and intricate metal work. Bruder said he focuses on the “simplicity of geometry” and creates his houses as backgrounds to people’s lives.

The environment and sustainability are also important, he added.

“The challenge of dwelling here is profound,” Bruder said.

His commitment to sustainable building is evident in the Burton Barr Central Library and its use of light. Bruder found inspiration for the library in the Phoenix horizon and Camelback Mountain. The library, which opened in 1995, has an acre of open space on the fifth floor reading room called the “Crystal Canyon.”

While designing the building, Bruder told his engineers he wanted the roof to float. To achieve this effect they created pools of light on either side of the roof, and on top of every column a blue lens with a small puncture lets in a “dagger of light.”

Bruder said his goal was to have the sun “drape as it slowly kisses the walls.”

Throughout the lecture, Bruder stressed the idea of density as a way to revitalize desert living.

“We have emptiness when we need density and diversity,” he said.

Bruder said ASU has been great in attracting people to downtown Phoenix, but “we still need people living here and filling the blocks.”

The empty lots in downtown have been another topic of contention for the community. Bruder said he would encourage the City of Phoenix to trade the land it owns and create more mixed-use developments. For those who own the other lots, he said they should pay more taxes, give the land away or donate it.

Louise Roman, Bruder’s spouse, said temporary-land use is key in utilizing the empty spaces.

“You either use it or lose it, “ she said.

Bruder’s version of a sustainable, dynamic city includes underground parking to avoid the heat-island effect, a network of streetcars and four story apartment buildings with garden courtyards.

Bruder also addressed the controversial development CityScape, recommending an alternate plan of open spaces with streetcars, sidewalk cafes and single-family homes topped with solar panels.

Bruder lamented the limits on building height as another restriction on innovative architecture.

“This arbitrary haircut we’ve been given by the airport authority is really sad.”

These limitations have not stopped Bruder from visualizing what Phoenix could become. One concept is that of a Ferris wheel, located in Margaret T. Hance Park, as a way to lure people to downtown Phoenix.

“What if we had the confidence of London or Paris and inserted a Ferris wheel to look out over our city?” Bruder asked.

Janet Robinson, a community member, said that after seeing Bruder speak she is even more intrigued by his work and considering taking classes on the subject.

“Now that I see he’s so personable, I’m even more curious than before,” she said.

Bruder is determined to create a city that stands out while still merging into the landscape it comes from.

“A desert where density and desire is something we can achieve together,” he said.

Contact the reporter at