Architects Luis Ibarra and Teresa Rosano don’t just fill a space, they listen to it first. Here, the award-winning Tucson couple share their unique approach – and their home. By Kaleigh Shufeldt.
There is no such thing as a blank slate in architecture, say Teresa Rosano and Luis Ibarra, the married couple that makes up Ibarra Rosano Design Architects in Tucson. They believe architecture is already present at a site, whether it is an empty city lot or virgin desert.
Says Luis: “It’s learning to listen to the site itself, letting it kind of guide you through. If you sit still long enough you’ll learn to listen to the patterns. You will begin to understand how to apply what you need to the site, in a way that is both respectful, harmonious. When we come to a site, we come at it trying to understand the architecture that’s already there, the good qualities and the bad qualities.”
The couple looks at a site without any preconceptions or idea of style. In fact, style is not one of Luis’ favorite words. He believes style sets rules that can keep them from seeing the actual solution.
But if their own style, or aesthetic, were to be summed up, it would be Desert Modern: creating modern buildings that are inspired by the desert. They focus on the natural colors of the area, with materials that will cause the least damage to the terrain – and are based off of the site. “It is usually the coloration of a site, the ground, the rock, the vegetation that leads us to particular hues,” says Teresa.
Both born and bred in Tucson, they came to appreciate their home desert turf in different ways. Teresa grew up on the far northwest side of Tucson, where she spent her weekends in the desert as her father – with no architectural experience – built their family home out of adobe brick. Her days playing in the desert led to a love of it, she says. It was one she fully appreciated on a visit to Taliesin East, Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate in Wisconsin. There on a wall were photographs of Taliesin West, the architect’s famed winter home in Scottsdale. Despite the lush greenery she was in at the time, “I saw the pictures of the desert and it was like there was a little flutter in me. I thought, ‘That’s home’.”
Luis, who grew up on the east side, says he thought every place was like Tucson. It was only when he started studying architecture at the University of Arizona, and was exposed to different building styles and people from around the world, that he realized he lived in a “special place.”
Luis and Teresa met at the University of Arizona College of Architecture, Teresa in her second year and Luis in his third. While they were still in school they worked on their first project together, a kitchen and porch remodel. From there they interned with architects around the city then started their firm. In 1997, now married and after just renovating their kitchen, they entered into an American Homestyle and Gardening design competition and won first prize. The publicity from their win got them their first client.
Both now lecture at the UA, Teresa a class on site analysis and planning, and Luis land ethics, sharing their lessons in space with architecture students. “We come up with ideas that aren’t normal,” says Luis. They use a variety of materials, such as adobe, straw-bale, cement, concrete block, and integra block.
A tour of their own home, in a mid-century district of Tucson’s midtown, showcases not only their modernist philosophies, but innovative thinking. Originally a small box of a house built in 1947, they bought it in 1995 and are still renovating.
A studio in the yard that serves as an office for them and four more staff is made out of RASTRA, an insulating concrete form. The floor is made out of cork bulletin boards – much cheaper than a regular cork floor, at 50 cents a square foot. In the main house, an addition to the original building has cut-outs in the Integra block that funnel air when their swamp cooler is running. A shower has a removable styrofoam roof, turning it into an outside shower for months of the year. The spacious living/dining room, its perimeter wall facing east, has been redesigned with a long, low window along the bottom that brings in just enough light, but keeps out the morning sun.
Their preference is for simple and bright: cobalt blues and lime greens, blonde wood, and plenty of IKEA wardrobes and sliding doors. In their laundry room, glass-fronted IKEA doors and cabinets hide every single appliance and object from sight.
Luis says the seller of their house – a daughter who was selling it on behalf of her deceased mother – gave up a cash offer in favor of the young architects. They described their plans for it, and she told them her mother had always wanted to remodel. “She knew we were going to put love into it,” he says.
If he has a legacy, he wants it to be not a lasting style or look that he and Teresa are known for, but rather buildings that fit their surroundings. “I’d like to think we did the best we could, we didn’t do what was trendy.”
Their work in Tucson and the surrounding desert ranges from city housing and commercial spaces (a duplex, courtyard homes, a fashion boutique, The Screening Room facade) to mountain-hugging desert residences and a residence in Alberta, Canada.
Whether trend-setting, trend-bucking, or just plain loving – of their trade and of their spaces – this couple is getting noticed. They are recipients of more than 50 regional and national design awards and a recent Best of Houzz award for design. They have been lauded by architecture magazines as rising stars, both in the southwest and nationally. In 2013 their project, the Levin Residence – made up of three rectangular forms appearing to hover over the desert – was featured on ArchDaily and HGTV’s Extreme Homes. The ultra-contemporary Levin Residence is now the backdrop for BMW’s new print and web advertising campaign for its Series 3 Gran Turismo.
*For more on Ibarra Rosano Design Architecture go to ibarrarosano.com or call (520) 795-5477.
* See more of the couple’s work on the slideshow below.