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Studio Ma brings desert-inspired architecture to the masses

“We truly think about design in terms of its space, and the space it makes”

The Brokery, a real estate headquarters in the Phoenix area designed by Studio Ma.
Bill Timmerman, courtesy Studio Ma

When you’re an architect working in the desert, you’re bound to be inspired by nature’s adaptations to the climate. Christiana Moss, a principal and founder of Studio Ma in Phoenix, draws ideas from the fragile ecosystem, how cacti adapt to extreme sun and dryness, and how simple plants can present lessons in self-shading and adaptive design.

But for Moss and her colleagues, the lessons of the desert go much further. Founded in 2003, Studio Ma sees designing similarly evolved environments as its mission, whether its creating a new addition for a downtown campus or devising attainable infill housing projects that works amid shifting neighborhood dynamics.

“We truly think about design in terms of its space, and the space it makes,” she says. “The name of the studio actually comes from a Japanese term that means a space between things.”

Studio Ma renovated Manzanita Hall at Arizona State University, a midcentury, precast concrete beauty, to add more sustainable features and social space while maintaining the iconic facade.
Bill Timmerman, courtesy Studio Ma

Moss sees the stark nature of the Southwest as evidence that architecture, and its relationship to a natural flow, is the key to good design. It’s not just some New Age desert minimalism; it’s about systems and balance, and how when done correctly, architecture can be a restorative medium that can make a place work better.

That’s one of the reasons her firm focuses on campuses, which provide about 70 percent of their work. Microcosms of the urban fabric and different types of building typologies, they become small urban experiments, and allow Studio Ma to design structures, such as renovated dorms at Arizona State University, that help these urban systems flourish.

“Colleges and universities want to be on the forefront of interaction and sustainability,” says Moss. “That’s where we want to be, too. Some of the most progressive urban design can be found on campuses. Sustainability, open space, circulation, bikeways; it’s about bringing best practices to universities and their urban environments.”

College is also where Studio Ma began. The firm was founded in 2003 when Moss and her partner in business and life, Christopher Alt, decided to move west and pursue careers as architects. Both had met years earlier while studying at Cornell University. They initially began working in Phoenix for other studios—Moss for Eddie Jones, and Alt for Wendell Burnette—before they began collaborating on their own work. Their first project, part of a NEA Cultural Infrastructure Project, was a submission to turn one of the canals that supplies Phoenix with its water into a cultural venue, called Portals and Loops.

The Lakeside Graduate Housing complex tried to create more communal, connected living space.
Matt Wargo, courtesy Studio Ma
Outdoor seating at the Lakeside sought to reconnect the graduate community with each other and the rest of campus.
Matt Wargo, courtesy Studio Ma

One of the firm’s latest projects, a new set of graduate housing at Princeton University, exemplifies Studio Ma’s approach, grounded in nature and natural influences. The new Lakeside Graduate Housing complex provide both living and social space, a more communal set of town homes and dorms set on 14 acres adjacent to Lake Carnegie. With generous outdoor seating and shared social spaces it offers a third space for gathering, something the architects discovered, during extensive student interviews, that the international graduate student population felt was missing.

The complex, which opened earlier this year, replaced a pair of older, concrete-and-glass Brutalist buildings on the waterfront that stood as a dam, both literally and figuratively. The structures blocked views of the lake while standing in the way of natural stormwater drainage. The solution, demolition and rebuilding, opened up the landscape and, as Studio Ma’s research showed, will actually decrease carbon emissions over time due more sustainable construction (the new plan cut greenhouse gas emissions by 42 percent over the next decade despite adding room for 300 additional students). In effect, the new building restored, and improved, the system.

“It was a selfish building, in a way,” says Moss of the older Princeton dorms. “It wasn’t the most sufficient in terms of construction, either, so we made a case for a better replacement. Being in the desert, we’re very conscious of all the resources we don’t have, so it makes us extra sensitive to these issues when we work around the country.”

The Museum of the West, a LEED Gold project in downtown Scottsdale that riffs off western forms. The concrete ribs reference the spines of the saguaro cacti. The metal panels on the second story recall woven baskets and snake fencing used by settlers.
Bill Timmerman, courtesy Studio Ma
The North Arizona University Native American Cultural Center, designed by Studio Ma using a participatory Indigenous Planning Process.
Bill Timmerman, courtesy Studio Ma

As the studio expands, bringing on new partners while winning 2016 Firm of the Year from AIA Arizona, Moss believes bringing better design work to more people is an even bigger part of their mission. That’s why they focus on museums and campus projects, as well as in-fill housing. The goal for the later is what Moss calls “attainable living,” working with cities to create new home and apartments that balance high-quality construction with more realistic prices.

“You need a quality product at the end of the day,” Moss says. “It’s our job to not just do architecture that serves one or two percent of the population.”