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Gjenge Makers: Transforming Tradition and Community

Sustainable design is a valuable part of our ethos at Optima as we strive to create vibrant communities built with the surrounding natural environment at the forefront. Now more than ever before, changemakers across the world are expanding the possibilities for what sustainable designs resemble. Today, we’re spotlighting a leader in sustainable design and affordable construction: Gjenge Makers and its founder, Nzambi Matee.  

In 2017, Nzambi Matee, then an engineer working for Kenya’s oil industry, threw everything she knew away to create a startup aimed to address the need for affordable and sustainable construction materials in her home country of Kenya and across the world. Her first thought immediately went to plastic, a material creating pollution problems across Eastern African countries like Kenya, where Matee has resided her whole life. 

A member of the Gjenge team collecting recycled plastic to use for their sustainable bricks

Thanks to her academic background, including a major in material science, along with experience working as an engineer, Matee understood which plastics would easily bind together and built the needed machinery, allowing her to mass produce the building alternative. Today, Gjenge collects waste materials from local factories and other recyclers and then uses a mixture of plastic and sand to form durable bricks and tiles. 

Gjenge Brick’s various colors

The designs aren’t just sustainable and durable. Matee and the Gjenge team wanted the finished products to emulate a sense of beauty, and today, bricks come in an array of colors, including red, blue, brown and green. Since its founding, Gjenge has transformed more than 22 tons of plastic into various alternative building materials and created more than 100 jobs for local garbage collectors, women and youth. 

We can’t wait to continue exploring the ways innovative architecture can contribute to a healthier, more sustainable world, especially with changemakers like Matee impacting the lives of others daily.

Architectural Treasures of Phoenix & Scottsdale

From Taliesin West to Arcosanti, Arizona is filled with some of the country’s most stunning architecture. However, many people don’t realize that there are plenty of local architecture gems that often go unrecognized, even closer to the Scottsdale area. Forever inspired by the architecture surrounding us, we’ve been out and about to spotlight a few of the many architectural treasures found around Phoenix and Scottsdale.

Tovrea Castle at Carraro Heights

Built from 1929 to 1931, Tovrea Castle is one of Phoenix’s most recognizable landmarks. The castle is named after the structure’s architect, Alessio Carraro, and former owner, Della Tovrea. Thanks to its unique Italianate Architectural Style, the building is known locally as the “Wedding Cake Castle”. Its construction includes a four-tier fashion, with each level utilizing materials such as granite block, pine wood and stucco. 

Intricate details, including parapets on each tier’s roof, Art Deco lighting and over 5,000 cacti, add to the castle’s extravagant character. Originally planned as a centerpiece for a destination hotel, the castle instead became a private residence after its completion and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Thankfully today, even if you don’t tour the castle yourself, the stunning building is easily viewable to any passer-by thanks to its grand design.

Gammage Memorial Auditorium

Gammage Memorial Auditorium

Acting as Arizona State University’s performing arts center for nearly 60 years, Gammage Memorial Auditorium stands as one of Arizona’s most dramatic architectural works and one of the largest exhibitors of performing arts for universities around the world. Considered one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s last commissions, the structure stands 80 feet high and measures 300 by 250 feet. Wright based his design on a Baghdadi opera house that he had previously conceptualized for the city but never built. 

Twin arch buttress walkways jut from the north and east sides of the auditorium while fifty rose-colored, “marblecrete” columns encompass the exterior, supporting the circular roof. Besides the round roof, the theme of circles are found nearly everywhere throughout the interlocking circular arcs of the building. Its shapes, colors, textures and materials all pay tribute to the surrounding Arizona landscape, and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. 

Rosson House Museum

Rosson House Museum at Heritage Square

More than 125 years old, Phoenix’s Rosson House shares a story of Arizona’s territorial past. Designed by San Francisco architect A.P. Petit, the 1895 home mainly displays a Queen Anne Victorian style. However, unique French and Chinese architectural elements are found throughout the home. Because of the home’s style, Petit utilized fired brick and wood for the home, shifting from the standard building material of the time and location, adobe brick. 

Standout design elements of the house include the Victorian Era gold-infused ruby glass windows, a Chinese-inspired half-moon arch on its veranda and a French-inspired octagonal turret at its peak. After being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, the historic house, now owned by the City of Phoenix, is a museum and remains a popular destination for architecture lovers today. 

There’s no better way to celebrate the robust and compelling architecture of Phoenix and Scottsdale than by getting out and discovering the treasures yourself. Stay tuned as we continue to explore more of our community’s remarkable art and architecture!

Women in Architecture: Isabel Roberts

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting one of America’s most overlooked architects. As one of only two women in the original Prairie School, Isabel Roberts immediately became an inspiration for women architects in the early 20th century. Learn more about her riveting life and career below: 

The Life of Isabel Roberts

Isabel Roberts was born on March 7, 1871, in Mexico, Missouri. Her parents were natives of the eastern coast; her father was a mechanic from Utica, New York, and her mother was from Prince Edward Island, Canada. Growing up, Roberts and her family moved often; traveling from Missouri to Providence, Rhode Island, to South Bend, Indiana. 

The Isabel Roberts House, by Frank Lloyd Wright Studio, 1908

At 18 years old, Roberts moved to New York City, where she studied architecture at the Atelier Masqueray-Chambers from 1899-1901. The atelier was the first in the nation to teach architecture with the principles used by École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Architects Emmanuel Louis Masqueray and Walter B. Chambers founded the school to forge more rewarding educational and professional opportunities for women in architecture at the time. 

Notable Works and Achievements  

In 1901 after completing school at the Atelier Masqueray-Chambers, Roberts moved to Illinois to take a position under Frank Lloyd Wright in his Oak Park office. She worked with Wright alongside a team of six others, which included Marion Mahony Griffin, the only other woman in the group that would become known as the Prairie School. 

Eola Park Bandshell, Ryan and Roberts, 1924

Roberts’ impact while working for Wright is commonly underestimated as she contributed her design expertise to various projects, primarily after he left Oak Park for Europe in 1909. Some of her most notable projects include K.C. DeRhodes House in South Bend, Indiana – a commission for a friend of the Roberts family – the Laura Gale House in Oak Park and the Stohr Arcade Building in Chicago. 

St. Cloud Veterans Memorial Library, Ryan and Roberts, 1923

Commissioned by Isabel’s mother, Mary, the Isabel Roberts House in River Forest, Illinois, was another of Roberts’ illustrious designs with Wright. Completed in 1908, the home’s intricate arrangement contained a warm brick hearth at its core and utilized a mixture of half-story levels to connect living areas. The Prairie School design featured other innovative additions for the time, including a vaulted ceiling, diamond-paned windows and a grand octagonal balcony.

A Brief History of the Attached Garage

For those tireless fans of Frank Lloyd Wright — unarguably one of the greatest architects of the 20th century — we are delighted to shine a light on one of his innovations that rarely attracts attention. It’s the attached garage.

In a brilliant process of cultural sleuthing, conceptual artist Olivia Erlanger and architect Luis Ortega Govela embarked on a project that culminated in the 2018 publication of Garage by MIT Press. With elegance, wit and panache, the authors tell this tale of Robie House, completed in 1910:

“In the quiet darkness of South Woodlawn Avenue, Frank Lloyd Wright molded and adapted the American home for the automobile. The small rectangular windows of Wright’s Robie House cast rectilinear shadows across the sidewalk. In the moonlight, the red hydrangeas lining the second-floor balcony appeared black, to be identified only by their smell. With no “front” or “back,” the building looms, imperious and totemic. To the pedestrian it looks like a Japanese woodblock puzzle: the riddle of how to enter, or exit, persists until one encounters an oversized gate leading to a three-car garage. The Robie House is known by many as the cornerstone of modernism, but its status as the first home with an attached garage seems to have been forgotten. The garage struck architectural academics as so banal that it became nothing more than a footnote in Wright’s illustrious history.

The garage was invented to domesticate the car. At the end of the nineteenth century, the car made its entrance into the stage of history to replace the horse. Initially it was a temperamental machine, and people were reluctant to incorporate it into their daily lives. The machine had yet to develop the technology necessary to be used regularly, so it was mostly kept in the stable, next to the other animals. Yet at the same time the car needed so much upkeep that mostly they were stored in communal parking lots where the first auto mechanics would constantly be preparing cars for the type of local roads that existed at the time.

Following the completion of Robie House, Wright was commissioned by Emma Martin to design an attached garage for her Oak Park home in his characteristic Prairie style

If the human entrance to the house was secretive, the one designed for the machine was not. Inside the yard, the garage doors dominate the space. It is here that the garage claims its rightful position on the front of the plot with a direct and easy connection to the street. If we go by Wright’s poetic hand, in 1910 the garage was symbolically integrated into the familial structure. This relationship between home and garage, family and car, would not reappear in architecture until the early 1920s, making the Robie House a premonition of the future.”

For a deeper dive into the history of the garage as a space of creativity (think tech start-ups and musicians), grab a copy of Garage and make time to visit Robie House. Enjoy!

The Ennis House: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Most Documented Work

From Taliesin and Taliesin West to his home and studio in Chicago, Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic architectural contributions continue to remain beloved treasures of modernism. And while many of the buildings attract tourists from across the world, one home, in particular, separates itself as his most documented property, and whether you know it or not, you’ve probably seen it yourself. 

Built in 1924, the Ennis House was only the second home Wright built in California. Situated in the Los Feliz neighborhood, Wright embraced the Mayan Revival style of the time and area, utilizing 27,000 concrete molds in a block construction to create the famous house. Along with the custom textile block design, Ennis House features a tall loggia spine and grand pool on its northern terrace, one of the house’s most glamorous features. 

The Ennis House pool and loggia

Although the house was built as a residence for Charles and Mabel Ennis, its exotic design immediately attracted the eyes of Hollywood filmmakers. In 1933 it was used as a shooting location for the first time, but it wasn’t until 1959 that it acquired unnatural recognition for the time as the exterior facade for the B movie House on Haunted Hill. The home remained a popular destination for films for decades, showcasing its impressive interior for the 1975 film, The Day of the Locust

Ennis House’s custom designed textile blocks used in Blade Runner (1982)

However, in 1982 the home reached new levels of fame after appearing in Blade Runner. While it was only actually filmed for one exterior scene, the director was so entranced by the textile blocks that casts of them were created for sets elsewhere in the movie. The tall ceilings from the cathedral-like dining room and fireplaces were also popularly used in films thanks to their haunting nature. 

The modernist interior of Ennis House filmed for The Day of The Locust, 1975

Since 1933, features from the iconic house have made appearances in more than 80 films, alongside various commercials, magazine covers and music videos. The Ennis House is designated a city, state and national landmark and added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1976. It remains privately owned today, but thanks to its inspiring and timeless architectural design, it remains a desired location for anyone looking to capture the perfect shot.

Women in Architecture: Natalie de Blois

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting a designer who generously contributed to the refined elegance of American modernism, Natalie de Blois. As an early advocate for women in architecture, de Blois became well-known in feminist architecture circles around the world. Learn more about her incredible life and career below: 

The Life of Natalie Griffin de Blois

De Blois was born on April 2, 1921, in Paterson, New Jersey. Following three generations of engineers in her family, she knew by the age of 10 that she wanted to become an architect. Supported by her father, de Blois’ interests in art and architecture flourished; thanks to him, she enrolled in a mechanical drawing course in school, which was typically limited to male students at the time. 

The class not only helped de Blois evolve her drawing skills for what would become her passion, but it also introduced her to the bias she would experience throughout her career. In 1939, she visited the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, further expanding her understanding and vision for modern architecture.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Natalie de Blois, a postcard of the Terrace Plaza Hotel, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1940

De Blois enrolled at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio but soon transferred to Columbia University after they changed their architecture school’s admission policy. While at Columbia, de Blois worked for various firms drafting various presentations and projects

Notable Works and Achievements 

Following her graduation in 1944, de Blois immediately received her first position at Ketchum, Gina and Sharpe, a firm she admired for their dedication to modern design. However, she left due to gender bias less than a year after starting. But, while one door closed, another opened at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), where de Blois’ talents were finally celebrated. 

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Natalie de Blois, Pepsi-Cola Headquarters, 1960

At SOM, de Blois contributed to seminal design proposals including the United Nations Headquarters and Lincoln Center, but it wasn’t until 1948 that she led her first project, Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati. The hotel immediately received praise for its modern, luxurious look and high-tech amenities for the time. She also contributed designs to many of the firm’s other significant projects, including Manhattan’s Lever House, completed in 1952 and the Pepsi-Cola Headquarters, finished in 1960, perhaps the most complete example of her most modernist design aesthetic.

In 1961, de Blois relocated to work for SOM’s Chicago office, where she was promoted to Associate Partner. In Chicago, she prioritized advocating for women in her field and was a founding member of Chicago Women in Architecture and was appointed to the AIA Chicago Taskforce on Women in Architecture in 1974. However, de Blois left the firm the same year and moved to Texas, where she completed her career in architecture, later becoming a professor at the University of Texas School of Architecture. 

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Natalie de Blois, Equitable Building, Chicago, Illinois, 1965

Alongside her revolutionary work, de Blois has received various design awards and achievements, including: 

  • Fellow, American Institute of Architects, 1974
  • Edward J. Romieniec, FAIA, Award for Outstanding Educational Contributions, Texas Society of Architects, 1998
  • Tallest woman-designed building in the world, 270 Park Avenue, from 1960 until 2009  

Throughout her illustrious career, de Blois’ proved to be a force to be reckoned with. And, in her lifelong pursuit of gender equality, she proved that women could compete at the highest levels of the architecture profession, empowering the careers of countless women who followed her.

Modern Interpretations of Le Corbusier’s Celebrated Designs

Celebrated as the pioneer of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier’s contributions to architecture and design remain as significant as ever. And although much of his work is nearly a century old, designers continue to draw inspiration from his inventive principles. Take a look at how designers are still responding to Le Corbusier’s theories of modernism today. 

This year, the international contemporary art gallery, Galerie Philia, displayed Héritages. Found at Cité Radieuse, a Le Corbusier housing complex built in 1952, the exhibit featured works by eight international designs referencing the functionality and minimalist design elements Le Corbusier famously employed through his work. 

And although the exhibition featured work from multiple designers, each piece united through a visual response or reinterpretation of Le Corbusier’s theories. While some artists showcased work heavily influenced by Le Corbusier in the exhibition’s “resonance” area, others provided pieces opposing his theories in the “dissonance” area. 

Arno Declerq’s steel daybed in the “resonance” room, Photo by Maison Mounton Noir

Belgian designer Arno Declercq contributed a sculptural daybed for the “resonance” room, inspired by both Le Corbusier’s famous furniture designs and his architectural contributions. The minimalist design features a structure of steel, a material Le Corbusier often used throughout his architecture. Paired with the daybed, architect and designer Pietro Franceschini contributed a chunky brutalist chair upholstered with vibrant yellow velvet, deeply inspired by Le Corbusier’s bold yet functional armchair designs. 

In the exhibit’s “dissancane” room, American visual artist Jojo Corväiá explores imbalance with his standout ceramic table. Using volcanic clay, Corväiá designed the table with the intent of displaying its cracks and irregularities, a practice from which Le Corbusier strayed. Designer Roxane Lahidji also contributed to the room, adding a sculpted chair of marbled salts. The stretched seat and arched base make reference to the fragility of organic designs. 

Jojo Corväiá’s volcanic clay table in the “dissonance” room, Photo by Maison Mounton Noir

In addition to the furniture, artist Flora Temnouche created three oil paintings for the space. The paintings touch on the inertia of nature, partially inspired by the sparse relationship to nature Le Corbusier’s approach to design and architecture employed.

Considered one of the most influential figures in contemporary design, Le Corbusier’s work continues to create inspiration across the world today. And, thanks to Galerie Philia’s Héritages exhibition, artists and designers continue to honor and reflect the transformative work, bringing it new meaning and life. Explore the rest of the exhibition’s bold work here!

The Culture of Planning

Planning is a routine process for many. From making a grocery list to thinking about where to vacation next, it’s part of everything we do. And like our daily lives, throughout history, the effects of planning have been known to shift dramatically from time to time. In his latest book 194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the American Home Front, author Andrew M. Shanken details the imperfect bond that architecture and the culture of planning shared in 20th-century America. 

Planning as Culture

While architects and planners experienced anticipation that influenced the shifting in trends in the early 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1930s that anticipation flourished and turned into action. The suspense that overlapped with The Great Depression at the time flooded people’s heads with creativity, innovation and radical ideas, affecting everything from the economy and pop culture to the booming architecture that followed the time. And at a time when shared pursuits for shaping America’s future were booming, planning became an overpowering cultural motto.

While planning certainly existed before this, it wasn’t until the intricate planning projects of the New Deal that pushed the approach to the mainstream. At the time, the word planning became associated with various figurative characteristics, like the future, comfort, stability and ultimately, radical change. From the planning of a single house to that of one of the country’s largest projects, everything had an interconnected tie in responding to the crises at the time. However, it was soon apparent that planning was culturally and historically contingent. 

American urban planner Robert Moses with a model of New York City’s Battery Bridge, 1939, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The End of Planning

Following WWII in the mid-1940s, Americans anticipated a boom in architecture across the country. However, as the country looked towards the inspiration that came with postwar planning, some began to question the intent behind the approach. And soon after speculations began to rise in 1943, society’s thoughts shifted. 

Preparations for the building boom that was thought to follow WWII quickly reversed. The modern builds architects had designed to express progression were turned on their heads and looked at, like planning, as hindrances. Architects at the time also found it difficult to forge a coherent agenda for post-war architecture and planning, further detaching the culture of planning from the public.

The culture of planning then shifted from mutual anticipation for the future that created inspiration to detached ideas that resisted individualism. However, Shanken believes that America’s passion for planning is ever-present. “This mission rests dormant in American culture, awaiting the right conditions to reassert itself,” he says. “Clearly, the culture of planning still has things to teach us.”

Stay tuned for more on the visionary designs of American architecture across the decades. For those interested in learning more about the wartime vision of postwar architecture, 194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the American Home Front is available through a number of booksellers online.

A Brief History of Outdoor Living Spaces

While interior spaces make an argument for being the heart of a home, outdoor areas – like private terraces and sky decks – contribute space just as important for residents, especially in cities. At Optima, we recognize and share this appreciation for access to nature, which is one of the reasons residents in all of our communities have access to vibrant private terraces and communal rooftop sky decks. Today, we’re diving more into the history behind the beloved outdoor extensions. 

A private terrace at Optima Lakeview

Balconies and terraces have been an integral aspect of architecture across the world for millennia. Thanks to their assistance in increasing air circulation and illuminating the interiors of buildings, Ancient Greece helped popularize the functionality of balconies more than 2,000 years ago. Balconies and terraces continued as popular architectural additions across Europe for centuries, but it wasn’t until the year 1500 that the rooftop terrace was created, transferring the lush area from the facade of buildings to the roof. 

While these outdoor spaces were popular across the world, utilizing outdoor space for leisure wasn’t a focus for many homes until the mid-20th century. Before this, outdoor spaces, backyards, were popularly used to support families with livestock and gardens. But, as time shifted, so did the purpose of outdoor living spaces, changing from areas made to sustain families to those made to support leisure activities and entertainment. 

The sky deck at Optima Lakeview

Today, balconies, terraces and sky decks remain integral to the architecture of urban landscapes, functioning as modern-day backyards and greenspaces for city residents. Since their inception, outdoor living spaces have continued to evolve with time, changing purpose and look, and we can’t wait to see what innovations in the coming years will bring for design, architecture and sustainability.

Women in Architecture: Doreen Adengo

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re shedding light on a trailblazer for some of Africa’s most transformative architecture, Doreen Adengo. Studying and traveling across various continents, Adengo’s ultimate architectural vision showcases the best of the world’s architectural feats. Learn more about her impactful life and work below: 

The Life of Doreen Adengo

Adengo was born in 1976 in Uganda where she lived until she was 18. She moved with her family to the United States in 1994 and studied architecture at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. She then completed her masters degree in architecture from Yale University and began her professional career shortly after. 

Her work took her from the United States to Europe early on in her career, where she worked at various architectural studios in London. Following her stint in the UK, Adengo returned home to Uganda where she founded the Kampala-based studio Adengo Architecture in 2015. Much of the work Adengo created while at Adengo Architecture focused the studio’s commitment to developing affordable and sustainable housing projects. 

The Bujuuko Schools, Adengo Architecture, Courtesy of Adengo Architecture
The Bujuuko Schools, Adengo Architecture, Courtesy of Adengo Architecture

Notable Works and Achievements

While Adengo had experience designing furniture and participating in research and advocacy focused on urban communities, her most well-known projects include transformative architecture in Uganda. 

Found in Bujuuko, Uganda, The Bujuuko Schools consists of three series of one-story buildings that stretch across the sloping land. The school’s were designed with passive techniques to establish comfortable interiors throughout the region’s dry and rainy seasons. Adengo also designed the school to echo the larger community’s appreciation for the outdoors, providing a seamless connection between their interior and exterior. 

Still under construction, the L-Building is another of Adengo’s most talked about projects. The mixed-used construction found in Wakiso, Uganda is primarily made of locally sourced clay brick, constructed at the Uganda Clays Factory nearby. The brick is not only used in its traditional building method as a wall, but also as brick-screen and flooring throughout the building. 

The L-Building, Adengo Architecture, Courtesy of Adengo Architecture

Beyond her architectural work, Adengo has taught at The New School and Pratt Institute in New York, the University of Johannesburg’s School of Architecture and Uganda Martyrs University. 

Adengo is a pioneer for modern Ugandan architecture, transforming the lives of many in the country. Although she passed away in July 2022, her studio, Adengo Architecture, still an active practice today, continues to welcome clients around the world interested in sustainable, affordable architecture and custom furniture.

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