Form and Order: Barbara Mettler & John Howe
by Gregory McNamee
by Gregory McNamee
In June 1961 a dancer and teacher in her early 50s arrived in Tucson at the wheel of a well traveled 1953 Ford sedan. Finding that an existing studio had been using the instruction books that she had been writing, decided to last out the summer and see how she liked the place, though she had been planning the move for some time. As with so many Tucsonans who arrive in the sweltering summer, Barbara Mettler may have wondered about her choice of the Old Pueblo as home, but now, after having taught in New York and Boston and spent time in Europe, she decided that she was now a Southwesterner and embraced her new home. “The silence and the emptiness of the desert have always attracted me,” she recalled, and she threw herself into her artistic work with renewed vigor, ablaze with energy.
After having taught in Flagstaff and Phoenix, Mettler found a welcome home in a couple of dance studios in town. She wanted a place of her own, however, one that spoke to her believe that rhythm existed in every rock, every grain of sand. Accordingly, she bought a corner parcel in what was then the edge of the city, now at the corner of bustling Fort Lowell Road and Cherry Avenue, and there she made her home and decided to build a studio that she had already named the Tucson Creative Dance Center.
The timing for Barbara Mettler’s arrival in Tucson was just right. With a population of around 200,000 it was on the verge of transforming itself from quiet rail depot and cowtown to major metropolis. The University was expanding, and the city was beginning to attract creative workers in many fields including writing filmmaking and photography, all things in which she took a great interest. Yet, although Mettler trained a couple of generations of dance teachers, she kept a quiet presence in town, so much so that today she is something of a well-kept secret except among students of creative movement.
Mettler had long ago established a reputation for independence and unconventionality. She characterized her work as the quest for “free movement,” which, beginning in the 1 0s meant an emphasis on improvisation—later in her career, in large groups, with the dancers provided themes but nothing else. “In some intellectual circles movement was a dirty word,” she recalled, and she was criticized for allowing the “anonymity” of improvisation to overshadow the customary hierarchies of choreographer, director, and premiere danseuse. She found her new home of Tucson to be just as puzzled when it came to her work, and she smilingly noted that the people here didn’t quite know what to make of her work, behind which lay a well-worked- out set of democratic ideals of which she said, “My lifelong goal is to make dance available to everyone.”
Just so Mettler wasn’t quite sure at rst of what to make of the spaces that were available to her in Tucson or the architects who were practicing in town. “She looked around for a building,” says Mary Ann Brehm, president of Mettler Studios and she didn’t find one that suited her particular vision, which had to do with expressing human nature and af nity with the nature outside. Such a vision required room to move. It required windows, light, and overhead space to suggest the endless desert sky.
Barbara Mettler found all these things in the design executed by John Howe, the chief draftsman at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Scottsdale, whom she commissioned later in 1 1. alled the pencil in Frank Lloyd Wright’s hand,” Howe had long labored in Wright’s shadow without much appreciation for his work—but now, two years after Wright’s death, he had more freedom to move, even if he held closely to the master’s blend of prairie style and midcentury modern.
Following a broad set of instructions from Mettler, including her insistence that the studio be circular in order to emphasize the three-dimensional nature of the dance form, he went to work. She asked that steps around the perimeter of the dance space be built, for instance, as if in a Greek theater, to allow intimacy between audience and dancer and she further specified an outdoor space the “third acre,” for use outdoors in clement weather.
Howe plunged into the work, and he and his Taliesin associates set about learning the principles of Mettler’s teaching, reading her books and even taking a few classes from her. The fit between architect and client was unusually sound for Howe was a rm believer in Wright’s principle that form follows function, that successful design must be organic, or what Mettler described as “the creative relationship of the work of art to its environment and the use of available natural materials.” She added in another of her writings, “Dance involves the giving of form and order to space through the art of body movement; while architecture involves the giving of form and order to space through the art of building.” Appreciating his sympathetic client, Howe obliged by building Mettler a circular studio 5700 square feet in extent, built primarily of buff-colored standard concrete blocks. The main studio is slightly below ground level, with a cushion mounted wood floor outside the ground is banked up against the building to emphasize the connection between indoor and outdoor space. The total construction cost Howe recorded in $95,625 was a bit more than $757,000 in today’s dollars.
For the round room, Howe had already had long experience in the decade-and-a-half-long quest to build the famed Guggenheim Museum in New York, with its sweeping spiraling staircase leading from door to door. The greater technical challenge came with the ceiling, which, as Howe described it, is “supported by a tripod of steel beams, connected by a steel ring at the center… Three fan-shaped skylights penetrate the roof where the structural tripods join the center ring.” Additional support for the metal roof and stuccoed ceiling comes from steel cables with a turnbuckle hidden in the walls, distributing some of the tension from the roof’s weight horizontally.
That solution is ingenious, but it took some doing for Howe and Mettler to convince a Tucson bank to finance the construction and then to find a contractor willing to do what all in all is highly unusual work. Finally the rm of W.F. Connelly, known for building schools and other large structures, agreed to undertake the construction after the owner’s son mounted an argument that the project would reflect well not just on the rm but also on Tucson.
Enter the Tucson Creative Dance Studio, and, if you are at all familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright’s principles, you will feel right at home. The structure sports plenty of built-ins, from lockers and shelves for the dancers’ use to furniture in alcoves and against the walls. The hallmark short entrance doors are there, too, but with a difference, for once you walk through them into the dance space, you are treated to a trompe l’oeil of vaulting movement, an upward sweep from the polished concrete oor to the windows offering views of the towering Santa Catalina Mountains and thence to that high ceiling. The effect is stunning, and not for nothing does Brehm remark that the ceiling dances with the oor. So Wrightian is the building, in fact, that it has sometimes been attributed to the architect himself rather than to his chief lieutenant. That said given Wright’s in uence at the time and the proximity to the Phoenix area, where many Wright buildings went up over the years, the Mettler Studio is the closest Tucson has to a Frank Lloyd Wright building.
Mettler died in 2002 after a long illness and willed her property to the Nature Conservancy. The well-known environmental advocacy group built its headquarters on the lot a few years later, adding a two-story structure that complements the original studio by squaring the circle but allowing some elements of the original design to carry through. Mettler’s home, next to the studio, houses other environmental organizations, while the dance studio remains in use, housing the Tucson Movement Center and other creative groups in Tucson. “There’s something going on there every week,” says Brehm.
Soon after building the Tucson Creative Dance Studio, John Howe moved from Arizona after 32 years of working at Taliesin rst to San Francisco and then to Minneapolis, and there he built a thriving career as a modernist architect with his own practice. He built more than 80 homes in Minnesota but he always ranked the Mettler commission high among his favorite projects. He died in 1997 .
A recent surge of interest in his work, coupled with a rising appreciation for the modernist tradition, has meant newfound appreciation for his legacy. So it is with Barbara Mettler, who advocated dance as a vehicle for liberating the creativity that lies tucked away inside all of us.