urban ambition

Though firmly grounded in its venerable Albuquerque neighborhood, this Su Casa Magazine/AIA award-winning home embodies the city’s transition from an adobe past to the digital future.

This article first appeared in Autumn 2008 Su Casa

Web-exclusive photos

The self-designed architect’s house occupies a rich and fascinating genre in the architectural canon, akin to the artist’s self-portrait. On a challenging and spectacular site at the nexus between downtown and the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque architect Mark Rohde has designed and built the “Villa Marquette,” a synthesis of the designer’s sensibilities and also symbolic of the city’s aspirations.

The Villa Marquette, completed in 2005, perches upon the edge of a hillock overlooking the downtown skyline to the north and west. On the east and south, the Spruce Park Historic District inclines gently uphill toward UNM, a genteel neighborhood boasting scores of picturesque Spanish and Mediterranean Revival style cottages and Craftsman bungalows.

These historic houses and streets perfectly reflected the ambitions of Albuquerque at mid-20th century to conform to American notions of neighborhood and community, just as the Villa Marquette articulates themes of a new millennium unfolding.

When the rather traditional Spruce Park neighborhood began to emerge in the 1930s and 1940s, the full force of European Modernism had finally reached American cities. As a pure and personal expression of modernist architecture, the Villa Marquette thus initiates an intriguing dialectic with its context, city, and region.

The Villa Marquette, for all of its considerable aesthetic and technical sophistication and refined beauty, does not reveal itself unabashedly to the world as most architects’ houses do. The street façade is not dominated by aggressive or imposing formal design elements but rather by a xeriscaped composition of great New Mexico red granite boulders, native grasses, and gambel oaks.

The landscape site design by landscape architect Richard Borkovetz offers a dramatic, organic counterpoint and balance to the formal structural composition of the house. The front yard makes an emphatic break with the familiar American lawn and garden approach to yard organization and points to a more progressive sustainable ethic.

The street façade maintains a subtle formal order surrounding the central cascade of boulders and grasses. Automobiles plunge into a subterranean garage on the right, while people enter the house through a recessed entry on the left.

As the boulders crescendo, the front concrete planes of the street terrace restrain the yard’s vector and commence the sequential, rhythmic layering of concrete walls and glass transparencies that is the essence of the Villa’s design.

The overall impression of the Marquette Place elevation is a Cubist masterpiece, in both planar articulation and the subdued color palette of gray concrete, green vegetation, brown-red boulders, and black steel.

The central iconic concrete chimney tower provides an axial anchor for the unusual site. Mark explains that “the chimney serves compositionally as a vertical counterpoint to an otherwise horizontal formal structure and thematically as a symbol of home.”

The elevated semiprivate front terrace offers a micro-nexus vantage perspective, looking onto the conventional Cold War–era streetscape below while framed by cylindrical concrete cistern drains that nourish the boulder garden through a leach field.

Once inside the Villa, the side main entry soars upward past a Calder-inspired mobile sculpture by artist Julie Frith to a sensational double story height bathed in daylight. The entry encases an exotic Brazilian walnut staircase with stainless-steel railing. From this vantage, the floor plan is still a mystery, shielded by planes of gorgeous concrete and honey maple paneling. Around and beyond these planes is a brilliant and buoyant interior inspired by modernist master architects such as Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, and Tadao Ando, all of them among Mark’s heroes.

“Basically the more open and public spaces are above, and private, guest bedrooms and utility rooms are below,” Mark describes. “The house plan is defined by solid volumes [of the kitchen and bathrooms and storage] and the open spaces between them.”

Rohde’s themes are beautifully expressed through form and material. The volumes flanking the open living room are sheathed in maple panels installed in an elegant grid pattern. Framed by the maple panels, massive concrete fireplace, and floor-to-ceiling glass, the second-floor living room is a fantastic aerie over downtown Albuquerque. Here Rohde fully exploits the transparency espoused by contemporary master architect Tadao Ando.

The simple sloping plane of the wooden roof inclines upward toward the north, creating airy trapezoidal living volumes. In the living room, a linear kitchen accented by maple paneling and stainless-steel appliances is well-designed for seamless entertaining in the adjoining open dining area and on the dramatic cantilevered balcony deck outside.

Sheathed in maple opposite the kitchen, the master bathroom is a bookend volume providing privacy for the master bedroom on the east side. The civilized luxuries of a private deck balcony and massive bookcase in the master suite invite serenity and contemplation of the awesome views of downtown and the Sandia Mountains. Behind the bookcase is a secluded library and study for Mark’s wife, Karen.

The upstairs suite of living room, kitchen, study, and master bedroom offers the fully integrated aesthetic experience of architecture, landscape, and fine art that is a cardinal virtue of modernism. Among the many compelling art works on display are paintings by Albuquerque masters Robert Walters and Frank McCulloch, along with paintings by James Chase of Santa Fe, Kiki Felix, and Leyton Hower. Here against the neutral concrete walls, the oil colors sing.

Of all the colors and materials so skillfully refined at Villa Marquette, concrete reigns supreme. A small black-and-white photo of Louis Kahn, an architect revered for his mastery of concrete, overlooks Mark’s desk in the house. Kahn’s own Yale Center for British Art, with its precise formal concrete structure and blond wood finishes, is a stylistic precursor for the Villa Marquette.

Mark’s face lights up and his conversation melds into reverie as he describes the process of building with concrete. “All of these walls were poured into wooden forms, and there’s basically no room for error,” he says. “What you got is what you see . . . the final finish. Every subtle imperfection helps tell the story of how the walls were made. And so you have to be precise. It takes a great amount of skill to maintain quality because the conditions of the material and weather change every day. We had a great concrete contractor in Carlos Chavez [Mayan Construction], and his foreman Oscar Dominguez is an amazing craftsman.”

The concrete is further articulated in polished floors, which render a glossy, granitelike finish to contrast handsomely with the lighter textured walls. Mark also chuckles about “remaining” friends with general contractor Joe Baca through the long and exacting construction process.

The ground floor plan is organized along a hallway axis with bedrooms/guest rooms on the north side to take advantage of the views, and utility rooms and garage opposite. A seemingly closed-off room arrangement cleverly opens up by the use of sliding translucent door panels evocative of Japanese houses.

Despite the formal clarity and precision of the Villa’s floor plan and structure, the house retains vestiges of mystery and imagination. The front façade and approaches are masked by landscape whereas the rear façade must be fully appreciated at a distance.

While the street façade conforms somewhat to its historic neighborhood, in the rear the architect manifests a grand modernist statement still respective of the (Modernist) past. The north façade is essentially a two-story gridded glass rectangle further sculpted by concrete planes, terraces, and a bold 17-foot cantilevered balcony. The steel and glass window structural grid is varied both vertically and horizontally to avoid monotony. Below the monumental north walls, the landscape slopes gently downhill. Here young Shumard oaks will soon grow skyward to frame the façade poetically.

The striking north façade is especially eloquent at night, when the glowing interiors provide visual depth and radiance while the otherwise massive and dense concrete wall planes recede. The composition invites comparisons to the great gridded abstractions of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, an early pioneer of modern art.

Mark Rohde’s Villa Marquette residential design further reinforces the firm of Rohde May Keller McNamara’s leadership role in the evolution of Southwestern Regional Modernism emphatically demonstrated at its major expansion to the Albuquerque Museum and UNM’s new Cancer Center. While paying homage to the sensibilities of site, context, and vegetation, in the Villa Marquette Rohde aspires to a universal and global expression of modernism that transcends Albuquerque and New Mexico.

Thus the Villa Marquette is symbolic of Albuquerque’s rise from a somewhat provincial metropolis to a progressive and ambitious city at the forefront of digital cultural diversity, sustainability, and environmental stewardship. The unique synthesis of these themes in the Villa Marquette is a harbinger of a dynamic and productive era for progressive modernism in Albuquerque. The Villa Marquette sits not only at the nexus between downtown and the University of New Mexico, but also at a nexus between the adobe past and the digital future.

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