The Mysterious Allure of Bart Prince's Architecture
If ever you commission a home by world-renowned architect Bart Prince, please don't ask him to build the same thing twice. Prince does not repeat himself, not once, not ever. His structures are individual works of art — a response to the moment in time, the client, the site, even the climate. To ask Prince to replicate something would be like asking Picasso to repaint Guernica — a misunderstanding of the creative process and the artist who undertakes it.
The fine-art reference isn't accidental: Prince draws inspiration from a range of creative and intellectual disciplines. In addition to architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff (he was Goff's assistant and became his collaborator), he cites Picasso, Claude Debussy, and Albert Einstein as major influences. "The same kind of creative approach can be done from one medium to another," Prince explains from his studio — a one-of-a-kind structure, of course — to dispel the notion that a physicist, for instance, can't influence an architect. "With Einstein, there was a mind interested in the mysterious. He saw that there were things in nature that wanted to be discovered or understood."
"It doesn't come to me as a shape or form in which you stuff the functions. The structure grows like an organ in response to the circumstances." - Bart Prince
Just as a painting is meant to be seen and a piece of music to be heard, a Prince house is meant to be experienced. The Akhil house in Albuquerque, New Mexico, provides plenty of intuitive insight into the architect's unique approach: Wood undulates like Debussy's originative harmonies; geometric cutouts bring to mind Cubist forms; and everywhere, fresh ideas demonstrate an inquisitive mind.
Abbas Akhil, an electrical engineer, approached Prince to design a home for him and his family in 1988, so Prince explored how the Akhils wanted to live, what the site was like, and what the budget would be. (It was $65 per square foot — shockingly low by today's standards.) Says Prince, "I'm not thinking about material. It doesn't come to me as a shape or form in which you stuff the functions. The structure grows like an organ in response to the circumstances."
Akhil wanted space to entertain, room for his three children to play, a window from which he could watch planes land and take off from the airport, and views of the Rio Grande Valley. Akhil knew the home would be singular — he'd long been a fan of Prince's work, and had already worked with him on a mosque in Albuquerque (which has since been destroyed). As the house was being built, it attracted puzzled passersby. "People were completely confused because the slab is diamond-shaped, and they were walking around saying, 'This is odd, right?'" Akhil remembers. The site attracted so many visitors, in fact, that when the framing went up, Akhil left a guest book asking them to leave their comments. His favorite comment, "When will it fly?"
Indeed, the lines of the Akhil house do recall the upward-thrusting angles of Darth Vader's Imperial shuttle, albeit more benevolent. Prince's structures are often given representational nicknames by admirers, although the architect doesn't do so himself. His residence is known to some as "The Caterpillar House," though others say it's more like a snail. The Price residence in Corona Del Mar, California, looks like a troop of mushrooms marching toward the sea. Says Prince, "You show somebody [the plans] and say, 'This is a house.' And they say, 'No, you're telling me it's a house, but that's a squid.'"
"I feel that my children were more imaginative because they lived in a house that was so unusual — they could think differently," - Abbas Akhil
Akhil's Prince home is definitely a house, whatever else it may be. But the 4,000-square-foot home has been more than a container for living; it's been an active influence on the lives lived within. Akhil says the way the sunlight shifted through the home attuned him to the change of seasons. He particularly appreciated the diamond-shaped windows in his study — designed by Prince so he could watch the planes he loved. "The corner was almost directly lined up with the runway. I'd look at the planes — there was no sound — and I just saw the lights, which used to project onto the wall of my office. I'd sit there and say, whoa."
Akhil's kids reaped the benefits as well. "I feel that my children were more imaginative because they lived in a house that was so unusual — they could think differently," Akhil says. And, of course, if ever the parents thought about selling, the children waged a successful revolt. Today, Akhil's children are grown, so he and his wife have moved temporarily to a smaller space in the center of the city. They plan to return this summer, however — they simply miss it too much.
When asked to describe the Akhil house in his own words, Prince's response is thoughtful and carries intellectual weight. "If an artist could describe a painting any other way, they wouldn't have needed to paint it," he says, adding, "Your dilemma is how to use words to describe architecture. To use one form to express another."
How characteristically Prince, and true indeed. One can only hope he will approve of the result.