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Marlene Imirzian, Architect

2021 MASTERS of the SOUTHWEST Award Winner - Marlene Imirzian

Marlene Imirzian honors Sonoran beauty with architecture that blends design with sustainability, history and context.

By Alison King

Marlene Imirzian didn’t even know what architects did UNTIL an insightful high school teacher suggested she take an internship in the field. She has been hooked ever since. Her formative years were spent working for Gunnar Birkerts, then William Kessler, which immersed her in American modernism in the Detroit area. Birkerts trained under architect and modernist pioneers Eero Saarinen and Minoru Yamasaki, whose design pedigree includes the original World Trade Center in New York City. Both of Imirzian’s early mentors instilled in her a broad appreciation for innovation and preservation—both of historical buildings and of the environment.

Beguiled by exposure to Arizona’s desert climate in the late ’90s, Imirzian moved to Phoenix and decided to give practicing solo a try. Higher education and healthcare clients came calling, and through building diverse teams with the right people, she established a highly decorated practice and soon emerged as an industry leader. She was inducted into the AIA College of Fellows in 2013.

Imirzian’s work can be categorized as an attitude more than a style. Each project is an expression of the clients and their aspirations, the current time and place. Her firm is lauded for employing a comprehensive, sustainable approach in projects that are highly energy-efficient and sensitive to their local and historical context.

She views creative thinking and engineering as critical to project development. “Our work incorporates everything we know about how to build well and ensure that a building performs effectively,” she says.

“Sustainability and energy efficiency are not new ideas,” she continues, noting that both are imperatives, not choices. “Does the structure hold up? Is it also beautiful?”

This mindset shows at the AIA award-winning Urban Desert House perched on a mountainside in North Phoenix. Part of a gated and planned community, the original developer had given up on the leftover lot due to difficult grading. Imirzian reduced impact on the desert by condensing the home’s footprint, stacking a larger living volume crosswise on top of it, and capturing several outdoor gathering spaces. Existing flora and landscape on the steep lot was retained.

When asked where she gathers inspiration from, Imirzian is quick to cite her environment. “The Sonoran Desert is absolutely gorgeous,” she remarks. “The level of beauty, diversity and color is impossible to describe if you haven’t seen it. The subtle way the plants change over time constantly inspires me.”

Treading lightly on the land is a theme that carries throughout Imirzian’s work. She put this attitude in practice when the The Girl Scouts of America Arizona Cactus-Pine
Council (GSACPC) approached her firm to rethink their South Mountain headquarters. The 14.5-acre desert site had been trampled by vehicles, and the camp’s location in the middle of a major water drainage route posed problems. The land and its topography drove a clever solution for the new Bob & Renee Parsons Leadership Center for Girls and Women.

By elevating the new buildings above the desert floor and restoring water’s natural movement through the site, the GSACPC can now appreciate a unique point of
view hovering just above the fragile habitat.

The interiors of the home are open and airy.

The new center includes gathering space for 500 guests, a museum and shop, in addition to cabins for small groups and spaces tailored for outdoor sports, gardening
and gatherings.

Clustered in threes, small cabins capture a common deck space in between them, which troops can use for larger group activities. All pathways on the site are universally accessible by meeting the same level as finished floors—something Imirzian takes pride in.

“Performance is a characteristic. Beauty. Performance. Joy.”

—Marlene Imirzian, architect

With its ample use of glass and elegant exposed skeletal structure, The Bob & Renee Parsons Center for Leadership for Girls and Women at Camp South Mountain reminds architect Marlene Imirzian of a tent without walls.

The Leadership Center structure is minimalist, much like a tent stripped of its skin. A plane of green 3form panels floats on the entry façade as a nod to the iconic green sashes worn by Girl Scouts.

Some of Marlene Imirzian & Associates’ notable projects in the public realm include new buildings and additions at local schools. At Paradise Valley Community College, the challenge was finding ways for the students to gather not just for studying but also to spontaneously meet up in spaces intended for the entire community’s benefit. By designing a series of lightly screened modules set apart from the main learning areas of the Life Science Building, Imirzian created flexible multipurpose spaces that make the most of
Arizona’s milder seasons, yet still afford a degree of privacy. Permeable screen walls soak up light and breezes while creating the smaller scale necessary to facilitate meaningful human connection and collaboration. Large outdoor fans keep the air circulating under the two-story butterfly roof, which also collects rainwater for irrigation use.

1. The Camp and Leadership Center, nestled on a slope of South Mountain, now works with the topography of the land, rather than fighting it. Girl Scouts of all ages will recognize the symbolism of the green sash included near the award-winning center’s entry. 2. A series of permeable yet protected exterior pods creates spaces for students and faculty to plug in and collaborate at Paradise Valley Community College. The massive roof provides ample shade while collecting rainwater for use in irrigation. 3. The Desert House in the mountains of North Phoenix was one of Imirzian’s early proving grounds for how to engage the desert without destroying it. Multilevel volumes stacked and oriented over a small footprint helped diminish the home’s impact on the mountain. 4. At Paradise Valley Community College, Imirzian created informal spaces that are disconnected from the main learning areas inside the building and scaled them to promote use by small groups. Massive outdoor circulation fans help keep the spaces comfortable year-round. 5-6. The original entryway of the Oles residence hid spectacular views of the Valley below. Imirzian remedied this by re-imagining the entire entry sequence, and framed the new space with a wall of windows.

At Mesa Community College, the firm was challenged by budgetary constraints to integrate existing 1960s architecture while designing a welcoming entry experience for new students. Imirzian’s resulting portal joined two existing buildings on campus by creating an entirely new volume that lightly ties two existing buildings together, capturing what was once an underutilized courtyard. A sweeping gesture of acoustical fabric above and architectural fins along the former exterior walls dampen the echo of surrounding hard surfaces.

A floating roof that only lightly engages the existing buildings makes the newly captured space feel airy and light. It channels water runoff to a dramatic oculus, where sculptural tubes capture it in a retention garden.

Expressive moments like this aren’t arbitrary. Imirzian often inserts a diagonal element to break up the grid. “Sometimes right angles can’t open up and engage the site in the same way a diagonal one does,” she says, noting how important it is for buildings to gesture warmly toward those entering them.

“Marlene cares deeply about the community, the desert and this profession,” says Melissa Farling, FAIA, principal architect at Gould Evans, who worked with Imirzian on the research and writing of a primer on best practices in school design, a much-needed project that Imirzian independently spearheaded. “She gives so much of herself and her time in every venue, both nationally and locally through the AIA, leading charges and championing different issues. She’s a mentor to many. She’s very much a nurturer, and that comes out in her work.” Imirzian further invests in the next generation of architects by teaching at ASU.

Imirzian hopes future masters will protect beauty and be hyper sensitive to place by limiting architecture’s impact on the land. “The desert doesn’t heal very quickly,” she notes. “The way to protect it is to not build on it.”

For more information, see Sources.

1. A wall of windows lets both the ground floor and loft soak up the view. 2. By reconfiguring the front entry and expanding the volume at the front of the Oles home, both the ground level and the loft above can now enjoy sweeping views of the Valley. 3-4. The Lamar Building is a historically significant structure that the City of Phoenix relocated for new development downtown. Imirzian converted the shell to house two condominiums while retaining and restoring the historic character of the 1925 exterior.


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