Renovation and Expansion of Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art
Salt Lake City is the product of an exodus. In 1847, polygamous Mormons trekked west across the US to escape persecution and founded a new settlement in the valley between the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Mountains. They built a temple and laid out a grid of wide city streets - an ambitious urban plan that would later become the state capital of Utah. The city sprawls across the valley but it remains a spectacular location where one can live in a wilderness setting and drive 15 minutes to a downtown office.
That was the draw for John Sparano and Anne Mooney, a husband-wife partnership who launched their architectural practice in Los Angeles in 1997 and then moved north. Though they still maintain an office in LA, Salt Lake City has become their principal field of activity. Working with a team of eight younger colleagues, they have designed a dozen houses, an arts building for a university campus, and a church within an easy reach of their studio. They have also built a woodsy boutique hotel in Alaska and are collaborating with international teams on other arts and cultural projects.
Complementary talents and shared values make Sparano + Mooney Architecture an unusually productive studio, one that intends to stay small but tackle larger projects in association with other firms. Sparano always knew he wanted to become an architect. At age 12, he formed a club with two school friends and sent away for house plans. He studied for his Master’s degree at the AA in London, moved to LA and took a job in the engineering department of the city’s transit authority, which gave him a good grounding in project management. Mooney came to architecture by chance, having previously intended to follow her father’s lead and become a pilot. She went to graduate school at Columbia, then switched to SCI-Arc, where one of her first professors was Eric Owen Moss.
Mooney is inspired by the modernist pioneers and by the restraint and refinement of contemporary Swiss architects; Sparano takes Steven Holl as a model - for his early work and for his practice of starting every job as a concept, expressed in watercolors. Sparano + Mooney follow the same course, looking for a foundational idea that derives from an object or a book. A stone embedded in layers of plexi was the starting point for a courtyard house of concrete and glass perched on a steep site. They employ these heuristic devices as a point of departure for designs that are developed in sketches and group discussions. Everyone in the office is invited to contribute ideas to flesh out the concept. Then comes a written proposal and a physical model to engage the client in the creative process.
All the best buildings emerge from a dialogue between architect and client, and this practice has built a relationship of trust with clients who are willing to try something new in a very conservative region. Sparano + Mooney’s buildings are reductive and uncompromisingly modern in an area that favors pale copies of historic styles. Their houses are a foil to nature and city streets, restrained in form and scaled to their surroundings, with an appropriate palette of materials and colors. Distinctive but compatible, they stand out and fit in.
The Courtyard House in a century-old district of the city is an extrusion of black wood, which occupies a long narrow site in a street of pretty shingled cottages, shaded by mature trees. The façade is set back to create a dark, cave-like portico, and the lofty great room at the front is linked to sleeping areas in the rear by a bridge that spans a pool courtyard. Despite its stark originality, neighbors have welcomed this new kid on the block, and that demonstrates the great advantage of working in the American West, where individuality is still prized. In sophisticated cities along the East and West coasts of the US, innovation is often discouraged and neighborhood associations can impose a conformity on new developments; in Utah almost anything goes - good and bad.
The architects live in a community of conventional houses on a mountainside overlooking the city. The Emigration Canyon House is their sanctuary: a modest rectangle of living spaces, jutting off a concrete podium containing the garage and services. The exterior with its deep-set windows is clad in a checkerboard of Cor-ten scales arranged diagonally. They are fire resistant, need no maintenance and the rusty brown merges into the landscape. The Oikos and Wabi Sabi houses occupy equally steep sites, and each frames mountain vistas. From below, their expansive windows read as reflective planes and they play the same role as the portico of the Courtyard House: a dramatic contrast of geometry and nature; what Richard Neutra called “the machine in the garden”.
The Glenwild House is located in Park City, a mining town turned chic ski resort. It is rooted in its mountainside site, with public areas at the base, a family room at the middle (entry) level, and the master suite at the top. The principal rooms open onto decks and the flat roof is planted with wild grasses that change color with the seasons. The house is a model of sustainability, employing a ground-source heat pump and a variety of passive strategies. Its clean lines and openness challenge the traditional timber construction that prevails in this region.
Still more responsive to nature is Aurora Villa, a boutique hotel near Fairbanks, Alaska, designed for travelers who fly in to view the Aurora Borealis from late fall to early spring. The cedar-clad exterior merges with the wooded landscape. Expansive windows and decks offer ideal viewing conditions, enhanced by low-voltage lighting directed downwards. A highly insulated building with
energy-efficient systems protects guests from temperatures that can drop to -45 °C in winter.
Saint Joseph the Worker Church replaces one that was crudely built by miners in 1964 following a prolonged strike. Boldly shuttered concrete is employed for the oval church and the pyramidal day chapel. The concrete was chosen to show the hand of the craftsmen and to emphasize the permanence of the sacred spaces, in contrast to the wood-clad parish offices, an L-plan block that shields the courtyard from a busy highway. A low concrete wall surrounds the courtyard and there is a strong sense of axiality leading in from the parking lot and, at a 90-degree angle through the church from a pivoting door, to the foyer, circular font and on to the sanctuary. Curved wood pews radiate out from the sanctuary like ripples on a pond and are stepped up to improve the sightlines. Light is drawn in from above and from 12 windows of varied size that are coated in colored film to evoke stained glass and create a soft rainbow within the worship space. Side chapels and the sacristy are contained in the poché between the inner and outer walls. In contrast the rigor of the church, the day chapel is lined with finely crafted Douglas fir.
On the Logan campus of Utah State University, 130 km north of Salt Lake City, Sparano + Mooney have extended the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, creating a zinc-clad addition to a brick block by Edward Larrabee Barnes. The new wing flows out of the old and gives the museum a prominent entry that has drawn many more visitors to its important collections of ceramics and works on paper. The metal skin is elegantly detailed; impervious by day and a beacon when lit from within. That sends a welcoming signal on snowy winter days and the new foyer doubles as a café and bookstore. An open flight of steps leads up to an expansive gallery that meets the highest standards of climate control and allows the museum to present important touring exhibitions. The interior of the old building has been upgraded and reconfigured to provide an easy flow of space through galleries on both levels, eliminating dead ends.
Though each of these projects has its own distinct identity, responding to site and program, there is a family resemblance in the simplicity of the forms and the emphasis on materiality. They are rooted and tactile; some rough, some refined, but always with a sense of rightness that makes them seem inevitable.