Judith Chafee began her career throwing elbows with some of the most significant architects of the twentieth century. Her education at Yale University under architect Paul Rudolph came at a momentous time when the best of a generation gathered in New Haven to debate the future of architecture. While thriving in this competitive male-dominated environment, Chafee established herself in the Northeast and practiced for a decade with Walter Gropius, Sarah Harkness, and Ben Thompson at the Architects Collaborative, Roche and Dinkeloo at Eero Saarinen and Associates, Edward Larrabee Barnes and the Office of Paul Rudolph. Recognition immediately followed her early design projects, including a Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome with Charles Eames and Diane Lewis in residence. Her inaugural independent project landed on the front of Architectural Record— the first Record House Award cover by a woman architect. In spite of the accolades, Chafee could not stop thinking about her Arizona home.
One lives in a secure area de ned by certain geographical powers, often mountains, that relate one’s body to the environment. I fully feel this. In Tucson, where I grew up, the Catalina Mountains are North, traveling north towards a certain point in their façade is “going home.” The Rincon Mountains on the East are where Lake Michigan is in Chicago and the shore in New Haven; South is Nogales Sonora, Hull House and Ostia Antica.
One should always live in view of where one’s umbilical cord is buried. My umbilical cord ew as polluting matter with odors of the stockyards over Chicago and perhaps contributed one pinpoint of grey to the grave of Louis Sullivan. The first connection must be respected and then we who have gone far a eld, albeit taking the Catalinas and the Rincons with us for reference, must accept that our umbilici feel their former adhesion to what scholars have long called the “birthplace” of this and the “cradle” of that.
In 1970, Chafee returned to Tucson and began a private practice that combined an interest in the Sonoran Desert landscapes of her childhood, endemic building techniques and the experimental outlook that she embraced during her internship on the East Coast. The architect further examined the roots and physical manifestations of vernacular building culture from childhood experiences in Tucson, through formal education at Bennington College, with faculty members Alexander Dorner, Howard Nemerov, Paul Feeley, and at Yale University School of Architecture under the direction of Paul Mitarachi, Paul Rudolph, James Stirling, and Louis Kahn. Back in Tucson, Judith Chafee reconnected with a community from her childhood and went on to develop friendships with a new generation of creative minds.
Judith Chafee came out of this community and was in part influenced by Margaret Sanger who spent her later years here. Chafee’s work shows this influence of place and character—a kind of severe modernism that somehow roots itself in the forms and ideas of pre-historic Native American designs.
Upon arrival in Tucson, Chafee began work on her home and studio, a live-work space in the neighborhood now known as El Presidio. From this base, the first freestanding house project began to take shape— the Viewpoint Residence for her mother, Christina Affeld Johnson. Chafee’s mother also recently returned to Tucson with her new husband Earl J. Johnson who was Editor of United Press for 30 years. A four-acre desert site on the west side of Tucson was selected with mountain views toward the north and south. Based on memories of glare created by strong Sonoran Desert light, the client requested a house with balanced natural lighting. The house should also graciously hold the lives of its inhabitants, embrace a love of cooking, and provide space for a personal collection of furniture, textiles, pottery, jewelry, and paintings. The limited budget required restraint.
In order to meet the toughness of the desert site head on, Chafee specified a light mortar wash over standard 8”x8”x16” concrete block walls. Cast in place concrete eyebrows limit direct entry of light and exposed concrete rain leaders direct water into triangulated planters on either side of the main entry. A free standing carport allows visitors to view the stepped form of the dwelling to singularly rise out of the natural low desert landscape. In morning light, the building appears white against the blue sky, much like San Xavier del Bac to the south, which was a pilgrimage site for Judith Chafee and her family since childhood.
A humble, but carefully constructed wood door provides access to the shared area of the house. Within this loft- like volume, the interior mortar-washed walls do not meet the ceiling in order for the clerestory above to diffuse light throughout. The public space of the house includes kitchen, dining, living and library space in a logical four-square arrangement around a utility core. Low sheltered openings to the south and ample direct access to the open desert on the north side allow for further balancing of light. An arrangement of exposed galvanized ductwork weaves through the upper reaches of the loft creating a site-speci c mechanical installation. The living area is anchored to the desert oor by a large replace with polished concrete base—pulling the center of gravity back down to earth. The south side of this large room is dedicated to dining and food preparation. Along the exterior wall, an ample concrete shelf provides space for plants, casual dining or even a workspace with desert view. An ingenious kitchen cabinet design mirrors the pro le of the building while meeting ergonomic needs and task lighting with unique grace.
Christina Johnson spent many years working with Carson Pirie Scott in Chicago in the interior design department specializing in the Scandinavian collection. This sensitivity is evident in the highly curated arrangement of objects that the house embraces. In photographs by Glen Allison from the mid 1970s, the architecture and interior design visibly fuse into an inseparable whole. Soon after completion, the house was featured in the Los Angeles Times and won a coveted slot as an Architectural Record House from 1975. This 2,600 square foot house has inspired architects for decades based on its reputation for economy, environmental adaptation and cultural connectivity. The importance of this relatively small house has consistently been inversely proportional to its size.
Judith Chafee’s independent projects, built between 1970 and 2000, embrace geographic precedent, aesthetic research, and energy imperatives. Historian William J. R. Curtis recognized these innovations and included her work in his de nitive text, Modern Architecture: since 1900. During this period, Chafee became associated with dialogues in critical regionalism for a way of building that integrated principles introduced during her sojourn through the Northeast with a foundation of pragmatic lessons abstracted from the landscapes of an Arizona childhood including San Xavier Mission, Tohono O’odham Ramadas and Pueblo Building Complexes. In time, sensible vernacular siting strategies and material building innovation merged into Chafee’s architecture without reversion to nostalgia or visual pastiche. Judith Chafee began her professional career as the only woman in her graduating class at the Yale: School of Architecture with a passion for equity of opportunity and dedication to excellence in her creative output, which deepened over time, into an architecture of substance that continues to inspire architects and an expanding population with environmental intelligence.
During the first decades of practice, she became celebrated for finely tuned buildings, situated with care in iconic desert landscapes. These houses bring form to priorities that are now widely embodied by the sustainability community and mindful designers worldwide. A close study of Judith Chafee’s early training and built work provides a unique understanding of making architecture that is both regional and far-reaching— an architecture that leverages limitations to stimulate an identity. Along with Chafee’s Architectural practice, she continued writing poetry and prose throughout her life. In her writing, as in the architecture, Chafee found inspiration in quotidian moments and often elevated daily routine to ritual importance through the careful creation of space, the modulation of light and recognition of regional intelligence. Twenty years after her death, Chafee’s work still provides an intellectual scaffolding and a tough-minded, independent practice model for the Arizona School of Architecture.
The forthcoming book from Princeton Architectural Press, Judith Chafee: Power Houses will be the first monograph dedicated to the life and architecture of Judith Chafee. The book presents an analysis of the inner workings and compelling output of an influential American designer while contributing to the scholarship of internationally significant regional modernism. Through essays and poetry by the architect herself, text by Christopher Domin and Kathryn McGuire, and photographs by Ezra Stoller and Bill Timmerman, projects vividly come to life and reveal themselves to be as robust and timely as ever. Release date: Fall 2019. Author Christopher Domin is an architect and educator at the University of Arizona and lectures internationally on the topic of regional modernism and technological innovation. Professor Domin is a co-author of the book Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses, published by Princeton Architectural Press. His research has been supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the J. B. Jackson Endowment, and the Paul Rudolph Foundation. Domin’s current research focuses on critical practice issues within the Desert Southwest, including the work of experimental pioneers such as Arthur Brown and Judith Chafee.