“A Look Inside” Studio Rick Joy provides insight into the processes and history of the award-winning architecture firm.
A sea of colour moves harmoniously in Princeton, New Jersey, forming a real-life time-lapse as hordes of students, academics and everyday New Jerseyans hurriedly try to reach the next destination in their respective days. The emergence of winter has been teased as of late, so the wave of colour is mostly comprised of thick wool pea coats of navy blue and musty green, or down parkas in bright hues like scarlet red—styles befitting of an Ivy League town.
The scene is unfolding at the Princeton Transit Hall, a shining example of modernity in the historic community. The station, which is made up of two buildings and a dividing plaza, has an angled, dark steel roof that slopes downwards towards the station’s train tracks. Concrete pillars tower above patrons and provide shelter over the building’s interior, where walnut benches and great glass windows invite outside light into the halls as its welcomed guest. Across the country, in Tucson, Arizona, resides the architecture firm responsible for this east coast triumph, Studio Rick Joy, which has come a long way from its rammed-earth roots that took hold 25 years ago.
“We are part of an evolution, we need to live with that in mind,” says Rick Joy, the founder of the legendary architecture firm that he established in his name in 1993.
Joy says that the Princeton Transit Hall is a project that stands out to him when he thinks about his career, partially because it represents the evolution his company has undergone. The studio now has projects all over the world, which means collaborating with organizations like the New Jersey Transit Authority and Princeton University, the types of governing bodies that were largely absent during the studio’s formative years as it built its reputation building desert homes for individuals in Arizona and its surrounding areas.
“Starting out working in Tucson, many of the projects were rammed earth, weathered steel or galvanized steel, which are good materials for this type of place,” says Joy. “And then once I moved onto Vermont, for example, we used cedar shingles because in that type of environment there’s such extreme freeze-thaw and temperature swings and stuff that you need the ability for the material to expand and contract in individual pieces.”
While Joy initially built his and his company’s reputation with the signature rammed-earth style, its output is now driven by climate, location and locally-sourced building materials, from white concrete in Turks & Caicos to copper belvederes on Long Island.
“I don’t have a signature style.” says Joy. “My style is derived from the location I’m building in.”
But still, many people in the know about architecture associate Studio Rick Joy with the earthy style that was the inspiration for his studio’s iconic first book, “Desert Works,” published in 2002. Rammed earth literally means taking materials from the ground like sand, clay, gravel, chalk or lime and “ramming” them together to form a building material. It’s the style that Joy and his team used to construct legendary homes like the Catalina House and the Palmer Rose House, both near the firm’s home base in Tucson. While the studio is far from reliant on the rammed earth style in their work today – as evidenced by projects like the Princeton Transit Hall – many of the most beautiful structures throughout the American landscapes most private desert enclaves wouldn’t exist without Rick Joy’s inquisitive mind.
In Utah, Canyon slopes go on as far as the eye can see, curving every which way against the silhouette of the setting sun and clear sky. The pure, untouched desert earth underfoot is immense, forming a coffee-coloured ocean floor in the middle of state’s desolate plains, just northeast of the Coyote Trail. Tucked into the valley, the only manmade structure visible is one that fittingly blends seamlessly into the earthly landscape. Emerald green water sits still in the middle of Amangiri, the resort constructed in 2008 by Studio Rick Joy in conjunction with a team of other legendary architects including Marwan Al-Sayed and Wendell Burnette.
The resort defines relaxation and the fleeting idea of actually “getting away from it all.” The legendary retreat is one of Studio Rick Joy’s seminal works and with its 33 suites, outdoor hot tubs and pools and brightly-flickering fireplaces, it should be on the bucket list of every world traveller who values old world qualities like peace, quiet and isolation. It’s not a resort, its functional art surrounded by sweet and epic nothingness—600 acres of wilderness that expands as far as the eye can see.
It’s the range, versatility and progression from works like 1998’s Catalina House to Amangiri near the turn of the century and the more recent Princeton Transit Hall that has cemented the Arizona firm’s spot as a defining leader of thoughtful and resourceful architectural work. Studio Rick Joy doesn’t repackage modern trends and call them its own, but rather it trots along at its own pace, ambivalent when it comes to meeting certain criteria imposed on it by the greater architectural community. While Rick Joy’s name might not carry the same celebrity as Bjarke Ingels or other media-darling architects, the former’s reputation is unquestionably well understood by his peers.
“All serious architects in the U.S. know of his work,” says Mark Lee, the chair of the architecture department at Harvard University, where Joy himself has taught. “His dedication to material practice, his dedication to finishes of buildings are very unlike many American practices,” adds Lee, who says that Joy’s work has had a profound impact on the country’s architecture industry, even if the design guru chooses to fly somewhat under the radar.
“I think he belongs to a group of perennial outsiders who are on a slow burn. They are very good, they’re very serious, not on a fast track, but pursuant to old architecture interests, with a certain tenacity, quirkiness and also confidence,” continues Lee. “He’s been producing quietly subversive work without keeping up with the latest trends and I think that’s something that’s his strength.”
In line with recently celebrating its 25th anniversary, Studio Rick Joy released its second book, “Studio Joy Works,” in October to commemorate the occasion and celebrate its diverse offering of work over the last quarter century. Joy has assembled a thoughtful team of architects since his company’s inception, most of which are deeply reflective individuals, inspired by things like art, philosophy and literature written about the place they’re working in.
“When I graduated from Cornell with my master’s degree, Rick’s office was the only one I actually applied to work at,” says Matt Luck, a senior designer at the firm whose passion for architecture evolved out of a childhood talent for oil painting and a later appreciation for philosophers like Wendell Berry. “It was either that or teaching he says,” highlighting how he highly he valued working with Joy in particular.
“Desert Works had been out for a few years,” says Luck of his thought process when considering leaving his east coast roots behind for Tucson around eight years ago. “The work was heavy, unapologetic and it sort of took a stand.”
Luck, who was the project lead on the Princeton Transit Hall, says Studio Rick Joy stands out from its peers because of its unique formula and planning process.
“We don’t really have a specific architectural style, we’re not going to drop a white house in the middle of nowhere,” says Luck. “What we’re trying to do is be very honest with ourselves and really respectful of the place, so we can come to some truth and work from there … that’s a fairly unique part of our work.”
The respectful stance Joy has always espoused with his work extends from his clients’ properties to the inner sanctums of his own offices, where his employees are valued as cooperators rather than mere collaborators.
“It’s a real equality-driven practice,” says Joy, adding that “two people with the same amount of experience — a man and a woman — get exactly the same thing.” Another example of Studio Rick Joy’s forward-thinking is its celebration of diversity, highlighted by its employ of more women than men, the dozens of foreign languages spoken by its wide range of internationally-born architects and its mental health-focused head office in Tucson that features seven kitchens, six bathrooms, six courtyards and, to the delight of Joy’s employees, a weekly massage program.
The genuine dedication to going beyond the ordinary is something practiced every day by Joy in his work and it’s reflected in how many of his most successful projects have come together.
“The open sharing of ideas that he’s able to foster in our office is really amazing,” says Luck. “Rick doesn’t just come in and sketch buildings for us to make real, there’s a lot of offices that’s how it works. Our office is really much more about the open sharing of ideas, every single employee has a big piece of ownership on these projects and Rick’s the person who fosters that.”
Working with Joy and building defining structures like Princeton’s train station has been everything Luck hoped it would be, and so much more.
“For me, seeing how he perceives the world, observes the world, takes and makes things from the world has been by far the best experience of my professional career,” says Luck.
25 years and counting and Joy and his namesake studio still can’t be narrowly defined. What started with a couple slabs of rammed earth in the desert has become one of the prized houses of modern architecture, somewhat quietly of course. And that’s just fine with Joy himself.
Throughout a quarter century of architectural output, Joy’s way of life has calmly reflected our planetary evolution and given care and respect to the materials and very fibres that make up each and every community he’s worked in, without shouting as much for all to hear. Given this understanding, the fact that Joy defines success with a borrowed quote from the Pritzker Prize-winning Australian architect Glenn Murcutt comes as no surprise: “You do the best you can at what you do and you make sure nobody recognizes you at the beach.”