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Weekly Alibi CityScape

By Blake de Pastino

MAY 4, 1998:  Bart Prince is among that rare species of architect that can provoke a response from anyone. In a city that's scattershot with forgettable buildings and cookie-cutter forms, Prince's houses--done in triumphant shapes that resemble grain silos, spaceships, raptors taking flight--stand out easily enough, and usually they elicit one of two reactions from the average Albuquerquean. Either you think he's a gifted visionary who has his eye on the far horizon of "good taste," or you think he's some guy trying to ply a gimmick, creating crazy structures that are suited less to Albuquerque than to Disneyland. But no matter which way your knee jerks, there's more of Prince in Albuquerque than Albuquerque seems to recognize. With more than a dozen houses around town bearing his distinctive signature of bulbous shapes and undulating lines, Bart Prince stands alone as the steersman of our city's architectural avant garde.

But Prince himself would never admit to that. Instead, as he leans against the countertop in his circular studio, he just crosses his arms and looks at the floor. "No," he says, "there's no singular vision. No one thing that I'm trying to say or do." And it's true. Bart Prince is not some waggish arriviste--he's been practicing architecture for 25 years, and no two of his commissions are similar enough to suggest any kind of stylish agenda. But Prince will concede pretty quickly that he is fascinated with the idea of "the new." That, at least, is easy to tell. All over Prince's studio there are brown cardboard models of his projects that can testify to his unique vision. Like the Gradow House, which now cascades down a slope in Colorado, looking like four flying saucers crash-landed into a hillside. Or his latest project, a house in Ohio, which can best be described as three brown onions sprouting in a forest clearing. And of course, his most famous project--one for which there is no model on display--the so-called "UFO House" at the corner of Monte Vista and Marquette, the house which, for most Albuquerqueans, is Prince's hallmark. And which also happens to be Bart Prince's own studio and home.

The UFO House--or as scholars simply call it, "The Prince Residence"--very nearly marks the mid-point of Bart Prince's career. Built in 1983-84, it's one of the fullest and most articulate expressions of Prince's cardinal rule: Everything must be new. You can see that idea at work in the studio, where our tour begins--a perfectly round room of concrete, a band of glass rimming the top. There are no walls to speak of. No windows in the usual sense. Hardly a single right angle to be found. It's all part of Prince's plan: "No boxes within boxes," he says in his semaphoric cadence. "Something more sculptural."

It's that funky sense of aesthetics that pervades the whole house. In the middle of the studio, a spiral staircase (covered in deep-pile carpet) leads to the two upper levels. There, there are no rooms of the orthodox sort, just flowing spaces that winnow down around columns and then widen again into cozy little warrens that could be used for almost anything. Only by the furnishings (like a solid state TV, say, or a Charles Eames reading chair) can you guess which purpose an area serves. And, as you can easily tell from the street, all of Prince's space is curved. There is no point where wall meets ceiling, no hard line where floor meets wall. It's tempting to run your hand along the surfaces--they are so smooth and organic--and the thing is, Prince will probably let you. His home is like a work of art that was meant to be used, he says, like all of his commissions, "a habitable sculpture."

Bart Prince admits that he's not sure why everyone calls his home The UFO House. He himself has described it as more of an "airfoil," a shape that lets in light from all directions and shucks off winds of any speed. But either way, almost everyone sees it as some sort of vehicle for adventure. Walking down the driveway at the end of the tour--toward a front gate that he welded himself out of left-over rebar--Prince agrees that he gets lots of reaction to his work, and everyone has an opinion. The people he hears from most, though, are ordinary passersby, folks on Monte Vista who find themselves pulled over in front of his big, bulbous house and ringing his front buzzer. "Usually," he says, "they just want to know what goes on in here. I tell them it's my house. So they want to see inside." He shrugs and grins. "I take them in and show them around. Most people, anyway, really seem to like it."

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