UA Architecture Grads Basis of Local Firm

Line and Space, a Tucson practice started more than 30 years ago, has a portfolio that runs from the UA campus to China.
Jan. 5, 2012
The UA Poetry Center's odeum allows outdoor events most of the year. (Photos courtesy UA Poetry Center)
The UA Poetry Center's odeum allows outdoor events most of the year. (Photos courtesy UA Poetry Center)
The Poetry Center's turning wall is one of the building's unique features.
The Poetry Center's turning wall is one of the building's unique features.
In addition to readings by guest poets, the center also supports traditional public events, such as corrido performances.
In addition to readings by guest poets, the center also supports traditional public events, such as corrido performances.

When the University of Arizona Poetry Center set about to construct its new home in 2002, it hired a local architectural firm, Line and Space.

Started in 1981 by Les Wallach, a graduate of the then-UA College of Architecture, Line and Space now has a worldwide presence. The firm recently was named the 2011 Architectural Firm of the Year, an award given by the Arizona Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Along with Wallach, the other three principals in the firm – Henry Tom, Bob Clements and John Birkinbine – are all UA architecture grads, as are most of the other employees.

An unknown number of current and former architecture students – the firm doesn't keep track – also have found internships at Line and Space, which is located just a few blocks from campus.

The Poetry Center, which started out more than a half-century ago in two residential cottages on Highland Avenue on what was then the edge of campus, moved to a couple of temporary sites before finding its permanent location.

The center, and its 70,000-volume collection, has since grown to become one of the best known libraries and archives of its kind and needed a building to accommodate its collection.

Line and Space was brought on in 2002 to design the new building. Gail Browne, the center's director, said building a new structure faced a couple of hurdles. One was getting approval for a design from the University's own planners.

"Our building was a challenge, and came online just after the Stevie Eller Dance Studio was built. It was controversial," Browne said of the Eller studio. In addition, the UA planners were insisting on construction that incorporated the traditional red-brick theme.

"We couldn't afford that, for one thing," Browne said. "We didn't have the money to add brick, and there wasn't any money (from donations) coming to us for that. Helen Schaefer was an advocate not just for us, but also Line and Space and the building they designed, and really went to bat for us to make sure we got what we wanted."

Wallach and his team started by assembling focus groups to determine how the design should look.

Browne said she loved how much attention Wallach and his team paid to poetry, "not just the library users and the various groups we have in for readings, but what does poetry have to do with this building that we would imagine."

One of her favorite groups included her predecessor, Alison Hawthorne Deming, and the late Harris Sobin, a UA architecture professor whose brother was a poet living in France.

"And it was a discussion of poetry and place, poetry in building, poetry in architecture. A lot came out of this discussion, which I think was manifest in the building – the idea of the repetition of rhythm, of silence, of the surprises and turns that this building has embedded. The turning wall is a great example of something you wouldn't expect to see. That was great," she said.

Wallach said, "You can imagine working with poets. We had a room – called the think tank – in what was an old garage, with 10 poets and 10 architects.

"Alvaro Malo, director of the (architecture) school at the time, sat back and didn't say much. Everyone was talking about ‘the structure of a poem' and ‘the structure of a building.' Malo finally said, ‘Let's face it. It's really about emotion.' And everyone said 'Yes, the sage has spoken!' It was really fun."

Everyone agreed on the final design. But it also came together when inflation and construction costs began to soar. Browne said Line and Space reworked the design to fit the budget. A basement had to be scrapped, but the design still allowed for the center to expand in the future.

"And because we are so distinctive, because we stand out, no one has thought twice about whether we should look like something else," said Browne. "We are a contemporary poetry library, not a building of old books from the 19th century. We're about the future and this is a building that is looking forward and it needed these elements for expansion and growth."

The new center finally opened in 2007, with the building named to honor Helen Schaefer.

Wallach described his firm as first and foremost a problem solver.

"It's been the hallmark of our practice for 30 years," he said. "It is the overarching philosophy, fitting the program with the client's needs that was drilled into us at the UA, and dealing with site and the climate."

"We're all practicing here in Tucson and responding to a very harsh environment – sunny, hot and arid," said Clements. "From the beginning at the UA, we were exposed to a lot of broad aspects of architecture. Over time, we moved in the directions that most interested us. I had some background in construction and working with general contractors, so when we're building, I'm helping with the construction."

Tom is considered the office manager. Birkinbine oversees the production of construction documents.

Line and Space has also caught the eye of architects and developers in China, where a new class of well-to-do professionals are looking for homes and other projects that reflect their and their country's growing wealth. Wallach said that the firm had designed and built eight houses in 30 years. The number of new clients in China meant opening a studio in Beijing, which also is run by a UA architecture grad, to design houses and a lot more.

"It's unusual in many respects because, in a general sense, architects there are almost revered. It's like being a celebrity. Everyone wants to get their picture taken with us, sort of like with the new UA football coach (Rich Rodriguez)," Wallach said.

"Over here, we would be asked ‘How many multi-generational neighborhood centers have you done? We hope at least a dozen before we would even consider you.' There, it is more of a philosophical fit because we're trained to solve problems. It doesn't matter if we haven't done that kind of thing before. Our approach is always the same."

Said Tom, "There is also a very high respect for and an appreciation for the expertise that we bring. They really hired us for that reason."