Sonoran Modern shaped Southern Arizona architecture nearly eighty years ago. Tucson Modernism Week makes a dedicated effort to highlight the region’s distinctive mid-century modern style.
Phoenix often gets the mid-century modern spotlight (thanks largely to the enduring presence of Frank Lloyd Wright), but there’s plenty of mid-century modern in Southern Arizona. The architectural genre often gets overlooked; however, the design style recently received some attention during Tucson Modernism Week 2022, which came and went in a flash.
There’s no doubt that Southern Arizona architects were influenced by national and regional mid-century modern modalities and, as a result, created some of the most iconic examples of the architectural style. However, the region also developed a signature Southern Arizona sensibility that’s sometimes referred to as Sonoran Modern.
Instead of following national building trends of the late 1940s, which relied on copious amounts of steel and glass—materials that don’t exactly mesh with Southern Arizona’s inhospitable summer temperatures—local designers considered climate conditions and solar strategies when incorporating locally-sourced brick, adobe, stone, and wood. Designers also prioritized outdoor living spaces, and responded to rugged desert surroundings rather than trying to dominate and destroy the landscape.
Many Sonoran Modern architects graduated from Taliesin West, the Scottsdale area architecture and design school founded by the aforementioned Wright. And even though Wright’s presence looms large in the Phoenix region, significant mid-century modern examples can be found in Tucson area homes and commercial buildings such as the Tucson Creative Dance Center, a 5,700-square-feet circular stunner located in central Tucson, realized by dancer and teacher Barbara Mettler in 1963 and designed by John H. Howe of Taliesin West. Along with Howe, Tom Gist, Judith Chafee, and Arthur Brown are some of the Tucson area names known for their practice of the regional style.
Since 2012, Tucson Modernism Week, an event established by the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, has highlighted the city’s mid-century modern designs. Though the 2022 event (which ran from November 9 through November 13) wasn’t promoted until approximately a month before the start of Modernism Week, I luckily saw the announcement. I swiftly signed up for some of the events, having attended in prior years and eager to see what was in store for 2022.
The programming focused on the relationship between Northern Sonora and Southern Arizona in the post-World War II period, and included a hosted trip (which quickly sold out) to explore the architecture and design of Ambos Nogales (“both Nogales”) as well as a neon sign tour, lectures, and home tours.
I attended William L. Bird, Jr.’s lecture Driving Designs – The Mexico Travel Brochure, 1940-1965, which dove deep into the history of pre-mid-century Mexican travel brochures. As the curator emeritus at the National Museum of American History – Smithsonian Institution explained, the Mexican government printed the eclectic ephemera from the late 1930s until the early 1960s, hoping to entice car culture-obsessed travelers to head south.
Bird used the pamphlets as a launchpad to discuss the cross-border influence of art and design between Mexico and Arizona. Specifically, he discussed how modern architecture developed along the border near Nogales, with models like the Museo de Arte de Nogales, designed by functionalist Mario Pani in the early 1960s.
When you note the similarities between the Museo de Arte de Nogales with the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Public Library in Arizona, which was designed by Ed E. Pierson and built in 1962, Bird’s thesis totally makes sense. Both structures incorporate earth tones, stone, concrete, and low windows that were presumably added to keep the buildings cool—a classic mid-century modern touch in the desert.
Following the lecture, I toured the Jacobson House, designed by Chicago-born and Tucson-raised architect Chafee.
As a female architect, she was overlooked locally at the height of her career. This has changed, and the community now recognizes her immense contributions to regional architecture. During her career in Tucson, Chafee produced some of the most significant architecture in Pima County and Arizona.
Designed in 1975 and built in a foothills subdivision in 1977, the Jacobson House, one of six structures on Pima County’s historic register, is a single-family Pueblo Revival residential home that’s an excellent example of environmentally responsive design, featuring a minimal material palette of glass, concrete, and aluminum frame windows. The strategic use of glass allows diffused light to enter. Detailed solar studies confirm direct light penetration or reflected light from at least two sides within all areas in the winter except into the courtyards.
The signature Chafee design choice of looking somewhat brutalist but also provincial gives the home a sense of volume and space. In addition, Chafee creates smart breezeways with opposing windows that ensure each room has natural lighting from different directions. Chafee speaks about escaping the heat as a child and finding cool breezeways in the desert. I imagine Chafee being conscious of this when she created this cooling effect.
Overall, I wish there had been more discussions or lectures focusing on architecture in Ambos Nogales. Still, I understand this is a small but dedicated core of THPF staff attempting to put on events that, even with a scaled-back calendar, can seem herculean.
One doesn’t have to drive far down the part of Broadway Boulevard, known as the Sunshine Mile, to see how mid-century modern style influenced the architecture of Tucson in the post-war era. However, it takes a more discerning eye and some awareness to find the Sonoran Modern gems nestled within neighborhoods and set back in the wild desert landscape. Having walked away from Modernism Week 2022 better equipped to spot these markers of Sonoran Modern style, I find inherent value in THPF’s aim to keep the conversation and history alive of this little-known but distinctive time in design that continues to influence how we build and live in Tucson.