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Desert Modernism: The Beautiful Boxes of Phoenix Architect Al Beadle

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"I'm known as the steel and glass man. I won't deviate from that too much. People come to me saying they want a Beadle house."

Phoenix architect Al Beadle wasn't mincing words during a 1988 interview with Carefree Enterprise, a local paper serving a small town in Maricopa County, northeast of Phoenix. He wasn't someone who had use for flourishes, turns of phrase or wasted time. The architect, then 61, was somebody who valued the complexity of achieving simplicity, who followed a code of careful, deliberate design: "simplicity taken to an extreme, is elegance," he said. When you look at his boxy, modular buildings sprinkled around the Phoenix area, orderly modernist homes nicknamed "Beadle Boxes," it's clear he never stopped searching for that idealized structural simplicity. A midcentury Phoenix designer who has little to no national profile—despite participating in the illustrious Case Study program—Beadle has been rediscovered over the last decade or so by architecture fans entranced by his unique take on desert modernism.

"When you look at Al Beadle's drawings, they look super simplistic," says Alison King, an expert on modernist architecture in Phoenix who runs the Modern Phoenix website. "It's a grid, it's modular, it's a box on stilts. But when you get inside, it's an entirely different thing. I suspect he was designing from the inside out."

Alfred Newman Beadle began building in Phoenix in the early '50s, a desert city at the beginnings of a postwar building boom without a homegrown modern architecture to call its own. It wasn't without it's own vernacular styles and history, of course. Frank Lloyd Wright had worked out of Taliesin West, and Blaine Drake, a former Wright apprentice, had already put his own stamp on regional residential architecture in the decade before Beadle's arrival. But the landscape was relatively open in Phoenix, a city still holding on to something of a frontier spirit, one the self-made architect appreciated.

Beadle may have been the biggest proponent of International Style design and modular construction in the midcentury southwest, but his training and early development mirror the region's frontier, go-it-alone mindset. Beadle learned the construction and building trade in the Navy working as a Seabee (slang for CB, or construction battalion) in the Pacific, and then with his father, who had set up his own practice in Phoenix, Beadle of Arizona, based around outfitting commercial kitchens. He proudly called himself a hard-hat architect, someone not afraid to get dirty. His lack of formal training almost derailed his career when he was caught without a license. But he simply had another architect sign off on his plans until he bothered to get certified.

Beadle cut his teeth designing for hospitality and dining, displaying a more light, playful aesthetic than he would for his residential commissions. But he truly came into his own, stylistically, when he began working on a series of homes for himself, his wife Nancy, and his family. While applying for financing, Beadle discovered that it was easier to get a loan if he said he'd work out of an architecture office set up inside the house. Since laws at the time prevented owners from flipping homes before living there for a certain period of time, Beadle became a bit of a traveling architect, buying land, designing homes and selling them, moving his practice and family through a succession of 13 Beadle homes.

While he would design dozens of customs homes over the next few decades, these Beadle Boxes really defined his rectilinear, modern style. Often built in foothills or on washes (areas where temporary rivers would flow during occasional desert rain storms), the box-shaped, flat-roofed homes, set on raised platforms, boast steel frames and open-air carports. Airy and adapted to the climate, they also would have felt at home in LA, and made fitting neighbors next to the work of Eichler and Neutra.

But despite a few forays into other cities, Beadle stayed firmly grounded in Phoenix, creating a varied portfolio adapted to the local climate. Executive Towers, the 22-story high-rise he designed in the Uptown neighborhood, was the tallest in the city when it was built, a sleek block tower with curved, cast concrete umbrellas set above the pool. The IBEW Building from 1967, a single-story office with Miesian DNA, is a minimalist confection wrapped in chocolate-colored bricks.

But his most famous design was the Triad Apartments, known by locals as the fishbowl, which has the distinction of being the only one of the legendary Case Study Homes built outside of California. A series of three glass-enclosed units adjoining a common courtyard, it's a study in shared space, and entranced the editors of Art and Architecture, who loved the post and frame setup, cast concrete walls, and the "restrained, recessive nature of the architecture.

"I think it shows great restraint in not building more than necessary," says King, "The design struck the right balance between efficiency and well-designed experience."

According to King, interest in Beadle's work has grown over the last decade and peaked over the last few years, as better online resources and knowledge-sharing, via sites such as Modern Phoenix, have made it easier for people to experience Beadle's work. The small numbers of homes he constructed, many for private owners in the foothills and behind gates, made it less likely someone would stumble across his work, as opposed to his more prolific contemporaries, such as Ralph Haver.

"He was a pioneer in terms of doing International Style architecture in the valley," says King. "I'm not sure about all his influences, and why he did what he did, but but he did right by Phoenix, that's for sure."

· They Like Eich: How Midcentury House Designer Joseph Eichler Made a Comeback [Curbed]
· Why The World Is Obsessed With Midcentury Modern Design [Curbed]