Introducing Bennie Gonzales, Major Mid-Century Modern Phoenix Architect

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Bennie Gonzales was an important Phoenix-area architect working in mid-century modern modes. He designed most of the major municipal buildings in Scottsdale, AZ, including Scottsdale City Hall, the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, and the Civic Center Library. Other major works in the area include the Heard Museum and the Cotton Hotel in Phoenix and the former Armour-Dial building in Scottsdale.

Beyond that, Gonzales designed hundreds of homes across Arizona. He also designed buildings found across the US, as well as internationally in Mexico and Saudi Arabia.

Some Background on Bennie Gonzales

Bennie-Gonzales-Street SignBarnaby Gonazales was born in Phoenix, AZ in 1924. In his youth, he was exposed to the construction industry while working in his uncle’s adobe brick factory. He first encountered famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright when he was only 8, at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, which his uncle’s company supplied building materials for. He frequently cited Wright as one of the most important influences on the direction of his life and on his work. Pablo Picasso was another of his heroes.

Gonzales enlisted and served in the US Coast Guard during World War II. In the course of his service, he picked up the nickname Bennie, which stuck. After the war, he worked as a firefighter in Phoenix. He enrolled in the new architecture program at Arizona State University and was one of its first two graduates. In addition, he studied at the University of Mexico, where he was exposed to Mayan designs that had a significant influence on him.

In 1958, after working for several notable architects in the region, Gonzales opened his own office in Scottsdale and began work as an architect. His first commission was the library in Nogales, AZ, where he would also build a home for he and his wife out of recycled materials. The library won him the first of several awards from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) that he collected over the course of his career. He died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2008, at the age of 84, at his home in Nogales.

The Architectural Work of Bennie Gonzales

In total, Gonzales designed almost 300 structures, most of which were in Arizona—particularly in the Phoenix metro area and in and around Nogales. As mentioned, he designed most of the major municipal buildings in Scottsdale and Phoenix’s Heard Museum. He also designed a number of civic buildings in other cities, banks, churches, libraries, hotels and resorts, medical buildings, apartment buildings, many private residences, and more.Bennie-Gonzales-City-Hall

Gonzales was a major proponent of regionalism, a school of architecture focused on the building materials, climate, and culture of the location you’re designing for. As such, Southwestern Native American and Mexican design elements featured prominently in a lot of his work.

For example, he sometimes used patterns based on Navajo rugs. He incorporated a kiva—a space used by Puebloans for religious and political purposes—into his design for Scottsdale City Hall, a highly unusual move at the time.

Minimizing the use of 90-degree angles is a hallmark of Gonzales designs. He liked how wider angles created a more expansive, open feel in interior spaces. Also, he didn’t choose his building materials based on trends; he took a more pragmatic approach, considering durability, cost, and availability. His experience as a firefighter also gave him an aversion to building with wood, as he witnessed how much faster it burned than concrete and adobe.

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By Ryan Smith

The founder and president of Mid Mod Phoenix, Ryan is passionate about mid-century modern architecture, real estate, modernism, restoring homes, designing beautiful living spaces, ASU, and enjoying life in the Valley of the Sun. To learn more about any of these topics, get in touch with him at ryan@midmodernphoenix.com.

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