Ned Sawyer carried very specific ideas when it came to what styles of architecture he favored.
“There are three houses that describe my aesthetic,” Sawyer recalls a conversation from his freshman year in the 1960s at Arizona State University in Tempe. “A steel house over a wash, a triad that is similar, and another that I don’t know why I like it, but I just do.”
See related story: Meet the Beadle!
As it turns out, Alfred Newman Beadle designed every single one of those buildings. Fate was definitely at work in forming this partnership. Sawyer, who earned money to pay his tuition to ASU by creating drawings and models for an interior designer, was speaking to a female coworker when he revealed his architectural preferences.
The woman took Sawyer to a Beadle designed apartment complex called the Triad where her boyfriend lived, and Sawyer ran into a friend from church that actually worked for Beadle. The next thing he knows, Sawyer is sitting across from Beadle being interviewed for a job. The series of events resulted in a 35-year collaboration and friendship that continues even after Beadle’s death in 1998.
Move to 2016, and Sawyer is collaborating with Palm Springs architect Lance O’Donnell on the Miele Chino Canyon Project’s Beadle house, which makes its public tour debut at Modernism Week starting Feb. 16.
Sawyer spoke with Palm Springs Life about the project and his architectural work with Beadle.
PSL: Can you tell us about A; Beadle’s design aesthetics?
Ned Sawyer: Al liked simplicity and was very concerned about how the design functioned and worked with the land. Depending upon the project and the location, he would vary the aesthetic, but it was always a total design. He even thought about the social aspects of the property. The Boardwalk Apartments (1963, Phoenix, Ariz.) were designed with social interaction in mind. The patios were off the common area, where you entered, and the bedrooms were on the backside. The intent was to get the young professionals that lived there involved with each other. If the blinds were closed, you didn’t bother people; if the blinds were open, you were fair game. I lived there and managed the apartments for a while, and a lot of friendships were created from that environment.
PSL: How did you become a part of the Miele Chino Canyon Project?
NS: After Al died, my wife and I remained friends with his wife, Nancy. She had been approached about unbuilt Beadles for this project. Together we went to the archives, and found The Spencer House, designed for a hillside in Paradise Valley (a suburb of Phoenix) – a pristine Beadle-esque project, dramatic, and the hillside matched the original plans. I had worked briefly with Al on it before the county pulled the permit and the project fell through. Nancy basically told them ‘if this is going to go forward I want Ned to be a design consultant.’ She wanted to make sure that any revisions would be solved as if Al solved them. Lance O’Donnell took over the permit drawings and we went back and forth and collaborated. It was a great experience.
PSL: Were there issues that needed to be resolved ‘a la Beadle’ for this home?
NS: The building was designed for that type of space, but after 30 years or more, codes have changed. The original house had a spiral staircase in the middle when you entered the living floor, but that wasn’t code any longer. The house was an H-shape plan and the kitchen was off to one side. Thinking has changed on having an enclosed kitchen, so we moved it into the main space and worked with the symmetry of the plan.
Also, because of the deed restrictions in the subdivision, the original design had 14-foot cantilevers on the inside. The second floor overhangs the first floor 14-feet all the way around, so the design had a steel strut that came down to help support the corners. To do that there was a column on the inside that extended up to make that strut come down at an angle to support the corners; like the corners were suspended. But the column that extended above the roof made the house too tall, so it had to be eliminated and the structure beefed up.
Al’s and my philosophy was always – if the site had something driving part of the design, you change the geometry of the design, not the site. When Lance originally laid out the pool he had perpendicular lines going to the house, but philosophically that didn’t work. You have two choices: you can have the pool slam up against the house, or have the house geometry extend to the pool, and that’s what we did. We left all of the boulders and made them part of the pool, the spa, the decks and whatnot. The pool is organic, and the house is more man-built.
PSL: Do you have any favorite anecdotes to share about Beadle?
NS: Al had a background in construction, and he was also in the Seabees. His father was in the restaurant design business too, so he had a terrific background. But he was, initially, unlicensed. Because of that, he said, ‘the drawings have to be better, the design has to be better and less expensive, so no one has any place to criticize the quality of our work.’ Everything in the house was total design concept — down to the doorjambs. However, he was pulled into court for practicing without a license. His attorney said, and I’m paraphrasing, “If you’re going to go after Al, why don’t you go after that other unlicensed architect who is building in Scottsdale? What’s his name? Frank Lloyd Wright?”
Scottsdale put out a proposal for a new City Hall. Al called Bill Cody and asked if he wanted to go after the project with him. They set up a meeting to talk about the presentation. Al used to call me Liquid Lead because I could draft really fast, and he invited me to join that meeting to take notes. We went to a nice restaurant downtown, and I’d ask them how to spell certain words, but they didn’t know. Suddenly Cody said, ‘I’ve got a premise: all good designers can’t spell,’ and I said ‘Even me?’ (Sawyer chuckles) We didn’t get the job, Benny Gonzalez did. But it was fun getting to know Bill.
PSL: What types of buildings do you like to design?
NS: I do industrial complexes, medical complexes and all of it is exciting, but houses are really personal. And not a lot of architects want to do them. But I have some sophisticated clients that appreciate design, so that’s a terrific collaboration, it’s more engaging, and leads to some interesting things. I did four houses for one client — all of the material selections, including the interiors and custom designed furniture. And I did a one-bedroom home for a retired couple that won an award. The couple was unable to attend the ceremony, but they left a letter that said, ‘We couldn’t believe architecture could change our lives in such a way.’ When someone is that excited about creating an environment that inspires them, I will take the opportunity to build that house for that very reason.
Sawyer will speak at a special Chino Canyon Project lecture at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 24 following a tour of the homes. Visit modernism.com for ticket information.