One might begin a Will Bruder profile with some seminal event from the Phoenix architect’s long and rich career, but how would one choose? There’s the 11-year-old kid in 1957, sneaking onto the Milwaukee construction site of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. There’s the college student presenting himself at the door of an up-and-coming modernist architect named William Wenzler, who asks, “Do you want to start today or come back tomorrow?” There’s the summer of 1967 at Paolo Soleri’s Cosanti Studio, spent casting concrete vaults in the desert heat; the move from the Midwest to Phoenix; or the self-described “outsider” winning the coveted Rome Prize and returning to design his adopted home city’s most emblematic civic structure. The fact is, Bruder has had several lifetimes’ worth of architectural peak experiences, and he has forged them into a body of work as varied as it is prolific, as rooted in its place and time as it is universal.
Not bad, for a guy who never attended architecture school.
finding the seam
Bruder’s first shot at college was a full scholarship to study automotive design at the General Motors Institute. “But by Christmas [of freshman year],” he remembers, “I was already thinking that this wasn’t the life that I wanted. So I went to the library, and I started reading books on architects.” His home state of Wisconsin had no school of architecture, so he applied to the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), where he was accepted for the fall of 1965. But by then he was already working for Wenzler’s firm, an all-star team that included a brilliant chief draftsman named Michael P. Johnson, who took Bruder under his wing. “It was as good a place as I could have arrived at on the planet,” Bruder remembers. Wenzler’s hemicycle-plan Nickoll Residence would appear in Life magazine later that year. Not about to forgo that kind of excitement, the new apprentice gave up his spot at IIT and enrolled at the nearby University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee in fine arts.
“My only degree is in sculpture,” Bruder says. But at Milwaukee, he also studied structures, urban planning, architectural history, and philosophy. All the while, he adds, “I was working 40 hours a week in this hot office.” The combination of hands-on work and omnivorous self-directed study would become a central theme in Bruder’s career. After hearing Soleri lecture in Milwaukee, he spent six weeks of his 1967 summer break at the architect’s Arizona studio, absorbing Soleri’s vision of, as Bruder recalls, “the ordinary becoming the extraordinary.”
Neither the desert nor the vision would ever loosen its hold. Bruder returned the following year for an eight-month apprenticeship spent casting concrete domes on plaster-of-Paris forms, producing graphics for Soleri’s next book, and drawing the never-built ¾-mile-high planned city 3D Jersey. “My whole grounding in materiality, beyond my sculpture background, comes from Soleri,” says Bruder, “a guy who wasn’t doing it in the normal way.” After earning his degree, Bruder joined the Detroit-area firm Gunnar Birkerts and Associates. But Arizona, as a place and an idea, called him back. He returned in 1970 and, although he has traveled and taught widely, Phoenix has been his home ever since.
a place in the sun
Neither the baking backwater of pre–air conditioning days nor the sprawling Broadacre City of today, Phoenix in the 1970s was a place of expanding horizons. Newcomers found at the city’s edges “a surreal natural landscape,” Bruder remembers. “They were open to re-evaluating everything, and architects were able to be a part of people’s change in coming here.” His clients were “open, curious ... looking for something.” Bruder matched that attitude with his own boundless curiosity, and a conviction that what they were seeking could be captured. He moonlighted designing patio projects and remodels until he could sit for the licensing exam, but he imbued even such small projects with a sense of importance, of being architecture.
The raw material of this early work was mid-century modern houses in cul-de-sac neighborhoods. Soon, though, he moved on to new houses on large lots, where the immediate context consisted only of the desert landscape. Unlike Tucson to the south, Phoenix had little in the way of Southwest vernacular architecture. Finding the local soil unsuitable for making bricks, early migrants from the Midwest built with wood. “And the dry desert heat is brutal to wood,” explains Bruder, who based his own palette on vernacular materials more suited to the climate: concrete block and corrugated metal.
Bruder was getting his hands dirty, often serving as both general contractor and architect, and he drew recognition almost from the start. The Galloway Cabin, begun in 1974, the year he hung out his shingle, won a National Plywood Association Award in a competition juried by Paul Rudolph. Bruder’s own house, built in four weeks in 1977, was published in Architectural Record’s Record Homes issue along with one by John Lautner, one of Bruder’s longtime heroes.