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Rick Torres

Inspiration: Interview with Dust Architects

Posted by on 2/2/18 at 04:39pm

The following interview takes the award for being the longest in the making.  And when I say longest, I mean it’s taken close to three years to get us here.  If memory serves me correctly, I remember flipping through Divisare, a few years ago, when I spotted the Tucson Mountain Retreat designed by Dust Architects. I instantly looked up their website (My name is Rick Torres and I have an design website addiction.) and soon discovered a body of work that displays the powerful effect that architecture, through elements like space, light, mass, and materiality can have on atmosphere and mood.  I then read that they were both graduates of Texas Tech University (Go Raiders!) and I knew I had to touch base.

Shortly after, as co-chair of Latinos in Architecture, we partnered with the Architecture Program at the San Antonio College to host the school’s first architecture lecture (in over 50 years) and featured both Jesús Robles and Cade Hayes from Dust.  Their talk titled Origins, which expounded on topics of regionalism, materiality and craft continued (hazily) after the lecture over tacos and margs, and then a few weeks later via a nagging email interview (from said humble writer) that resulted in the following exchange. If you missed the lecture some years ago or need a quick brush up, please enjoy.

Favorite Color:

Jesús Robles: Silver moonlight

Cade Hayes: Low winter sunlight, (how would anyone choose one color? They are all so good)

Sushi or Tacos?

JR: Definitely Tacos…

CH: I’m New Mexican so I thought the only important question was Green or Red? Tacos are a given.

Zumthor or Murcutt?

JR: Hard one, Zumthor’s poetics and sensibilities, but Murcutt’s ethics

CH: Both. They are completely different but both uphold a knowledge and mastery of what they do. (Ask about black or white, I choose grey.)

Currently Reading.

JR:  These interview questions ;), Western Apache Raiding and Warfare by Greenville Goodwin, American Nations by Colin Woodward, Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

CH: American Nations by Colin Woodward, Garlic Testament by Stanley Crawford (so much relative to architecture, design and life in this book), How much House? By Urs Peter Flueckiger (Gotta support the other Texans, it’s a nice book)

How does craft relate to culture and place?

JR: I think we’d have to define the parameters of what craft is…In the old days, I think craft was a product of the culture and place, traceable to its early cross pollinations through trade routes.  It may have been more definitive, regionally tied to the skills of life and materials available.  Nowadays, culture transcends place easier, therefore, craft relative to those things becomes blurred, culture and place perhaps becoming more obsolete. Higher Craft becomes unaffordable, or unattainable.  Where we live, building with dirt, adobes, rammed earth, are the most expensive things.  It didn’t used to be this way, and we’ve replaced a regional trade or craft with an industrial model that is made for speed.  Understanding the skills of a region may give some leverage here and there to pursue the relative craft, and further expand on its meaning.

CH:  It is a deep rooted question and comes with a lot of nuances.   Growing up in the southwest, there is a general undercurrent of thinking that, “it’s good enough, doesn’t get better and why try harder” and that thinking infects every aspect of life growing up in a place that is hard scrabble, self-reliant and self-sufficient. This thinking though can also become detrimental in shaping our world and is apparent in a majority of the built environment. I do think more and more it is also not only affecting our region but perhaps the large US. Fast food, want it now, not willing to pay for real materials or time to craft well, no soul.

Good craft is essential to us. Care and having honor in one’s work is a value that is held in high regard and important to us that these values are held by the people we choose to work with.  We have to seek these people out, those who are like minded in the way we would like to see our world built.  Doing good work, having care for the things one does transcends cultures, good craftsmen can be found all over the world in any number of cultures and different cultures may be better craftsmen at one thing than another. In Tucson, for example, the best craftsmen are probably Masons, there is not a lot of wood in our desert, so obviously there is not a long standing culture of carpenters and woodworkers like the northeast.  Look at the place, look at those skills that are the best and try to use those skills as much as possible

Can you explain the origins and evolution of your architectural language?

JR:  It’s the outcome of trying to distill it down to the essential things.  Layered with cultural and geological history.

CH: It stems from lived experiences, our environment, from our youth and where we grew up, to and from those with whom we were raised both in our biological world but also architecturally. Professors at the University who opened windows to new worlds and ways of seeing and thinking to the artists and architects of our region that came before us, to the books we’ve ingested and to the Architects that we have worked for in the past.

All boiled down, it’s not all that simple to distill into one thing, one place, one moment, it’s a dust storm of cosmic soup.

In your lecture, aptly titled “Origins,” at the San Antonio College (Architecture Program), there was a noticeable absence of the architectural rendering – is that a conscious choice in your process? Do you think such digital imagery in architecture stimulates or hinders the way we design?

JR:  We definitely use renderings in our design process, and to convey the idea to the client.  There’s an art to it, to be able to convey the emotion, or mood of the space is our focus.   I find the atmosphere and composition of the real thing is difficult to render.  It definitely stimulates, or feeds the way we design, with the intent to simulate reality.

CH: We use the computer and renderings to demonstrate our designs to our clients. We actually embrace it and see it as what it is, a way to graphically show the client what the experience will potentially be like. We don’t show a lot of renderings in the lecture because renderings are just ideas, not built work.  Built work is the only real work worth talking about

The architectural diagram’s discourse is ever evolving and it has subsequently become a fundamental tool in the design process of many architects. How do you define the ‘diagram’ as it relates to your professional practice?  And how do you apply that understanding to your roles at the University of Arizona, if at all?

JR:  A diagram can say so much, with so little.  We express it mainly as a communication tool.  Some instances it is used in the design process, but for us, mostly it’s about graphic communication.

CH:  In academia the diagram gets preached to death, students make diagrams just to make diagrams and many of them have no meaning and were not part of the process. Or they make unnecessary diagrams talking about the process, but it’s all fabricated and was not necessarily the process they went through to arrive where they did.  It all becomes busy work with no real deep content or thinking.  In that sense, I don’t personally like the importance placed upon students.  Diagrams as the mother of process, nah, it can be irrelevant to what is really taking place.

In practice, yes, we use them when we need to do so.  Diagrams can be used effectively to support design communications, to help explain or support ideas that may be too abstract without a diagram.

You speak of architecture as more than just an exploration of form and function and emphasize its potential to invigorate communities.  As a design/build practice, how does that manifest itself in your design and also construction process?

JR: There are so many hands and minds that come together to actualize a project, with everyone bringing themselves to it, in one way or another.  From the design intern, to the laborer on site.  We look at it as sort of ritual, this thing that is done not because you have to, or that it’s a 9 to 5…But we feel it can be more than that.  A way of life, having fun, or play, in working and learning as a team.

CH: Any time the people who work on a project can truly feel a part of the team, that they have a voice, that their ideas and opinions are valued, that we want their brains as much as their hands they take more ownership and pride in what they do.  In turn they are happier and do better work. The project is a reflection of all those who put their hand on it, it is theirs too.  One pretty picture = hundreds of hands, sweat, blood and tears.

How would the pursuit of larger scale projects affect your process and the nature of your work?

JR: We feel strongly that our approach would be suitable in scaling up.  We definitely would like to see some larger public works come through the studio.

CH: Absolutely. Different locations would inform the decision-making process differently.  Still a response driven process.

What’s the most relevant piece of advice you’ve received that you’d like to share with young architects today?

JR: The sun doesn’t stop shining after it sets…

CH: “Remember where you came from and it will set you free.”  Carlos Jimenez