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Arthur T. Brown: Tucson’s desert modernist

The humble architect’s stripped-down style presaged passive solar design

Rosenberg house
George Geyer/Arthur Brown Collection/Courtesy Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation

Located in a lofted basin 2,600 feet high, surrounded by beautiful mountains and peerless views, Tucson, Arizona, exemplifies the natural beauty of the Southwest. When architect Arthur T. Brown designed homes and buildings for this desert plateau, he rarely let manmade ornamentation get in the way, crafting simple structures finely attuned to the rhythms of the sun and seasons.

“His work doesn’t stand up, scream, and shout,” says Bob Vint, founder of an eponymous architecture firm in Tucson who has researched Brown’s work. “It’s just simple, elegant, and unpretentious, and made of real materials. The buildings are sincere, just like his personality.”

Brown’s work was also filled with pioneering—and sadly underappreciated—examples of environmentally aware architecture. He pushed progressive passive solar principles during a time when, he lamented, “gas was so cheap nobody cared.” It was all part of his core philosophy: Architecture wasn’t about style, it was about solving problems.

Biography

The key characteristics of Brown’s mature designs, frugality, and minimalism, reflect his personal values, honed during formative years as an architect in the Depression. Born in the farming community of Tarkio, Missouri, Brown would study architecture at Ohio State University, setting off for the big city of Chicago after graduation to make his name. He began as a draftsman before landing a gig in David Adler’s prestigious office on Michigan Avenue, where he’d stay until 1935. He remembers seeing big-name architects like Frank Lloyd Wright in the building elevator, heading up for drinks and debate at the Cliff Dwellers Club.

Kane house
Jude Ignacio and Gerardine Vargas/Courtesy of Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation

During the lean years of the ’30s, Brown struggled to make ends meet in Chicago, taking whatever work he could, including a graphic design gig making signs for the 1933 Century of Progress exhibition. On the advice of a classmate, he headed west to Phoenix in 1935, taking a seven-day road trip across the country chasing the possibility of work. By 1936, he had arrived in Tucson, and while the scenery had changed—and he formed a partnership with Richard A. Morse—work was still scarce. He recalls the struggles of scraping together work before the postwar boom in his autobiography: He once sketched out an addition for a clothing manufacturer who, short of cash, paid the architect with two pairs of pants.

But by the mid ’40s, Tucson was taking off. Returning GIs, who had trained nearby, loved the scenery, and a large Hughes aircraft plant also attracted plenty of investment (and potential clients). Brown was busier than ever, working on private homes (including one for reproductive-health advocate Margaret Sanger), restaurants (his sleek design for the Red and Blue Dine-In was celebrated in a British magazine), and public schools, buildings that symbolized the city’s midcentury surge.

During the ’40s and ’50s, Brown began refining passive solar techniques to channel and store the sun’s heat for the desert city’s cold nights. His 1946 Rosenberg House features floor-to-ceiling glass walls and a black-concrete core that stored the sun’s energy overnight, while his 1948 Rose Elementary School included a slanted, south-facing roof built with sandwiched aluminum roofing panels, which created a gap of warm air that was circulated through the building. Before sustainability was a buzzword, he’d designed a school that, by dint of Brown’s design, decreased heating costs by 80 percent.

His work was even more inventive when it came to shading; his 1952 Sky Shade House featured a semicircular patio with a movable system of metal shades, a “revolving porch” that could be adjusted along the path of the sun, and his design for a carport, a metal parabolic hyperboloid, corkscrewed with a panache that recalled the tail fin of American automobiles of the era. He always considered himself an inventor, someone who wanted to “design a new, ‘way out’ thing,” and would continue to do so throughout the next few decades.

“His attentiveness to the sun really poetically expressed itself in his shading structure,” says Anthony Denzer, a professor and head of the the University of Wyoming’s civil and architectural engineering department who studied Brown’s passive solar design. “He didn’t invent shading, of course, but he created new forms.”

Ball-Paylore house
Bill Sears/Courtesy the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation

Buildings to know

Sadly, roughly half of Brown’s designed have been lost, including some of his most famous works, including the Rose School, and a pair of larger commissions, the Tucson General Hospital, which boasted stunning aluminum shades anodized with gold, and the Biltmore Motor Hotel. Vint blames the city’s sprawl and growth mentality, which has led to a “road-widening binge” and lots of tear-downs.

But Brown’s particular genius is still evident all over town. His 1959 Congdon House, an L-shaped residence made from mortar-washed burnt adobe and a low-slope timber-framed roof, showcases his open, free-flowing contemporary style. His 1951 Faith Lutheran Church, an A-frame ecclesiastical wonder, features a precast concrete roof and a stunning minimalist bell tower formed by two simple planes.

Legacy and reputation today

Brown’s streamlined approach was revelatory, as was his desire “to use solar heat in a part of the world where the usual stress is to combat it.” While desert modernism may be synonymous with the high-end homes of Palm Springs, Brown was one of the modernists that made southeast Arizona a hotbed for progressive design.

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