Sand and Stone

Otherworldly and irreverent, some of the most innovative architecture in California is popping up in the High Desert

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Pool Hardy: Desert house


Completed: 2005
Location: Desert Hot Springs
Size: 2,100 square feet 

Though assembled from ten factory-built steel modules, Marmol Radziner’s Desert House is no walled-off bunker. Located near Desert Hot Springs, the narrow L-shaped home features insulated floor-to-ceiling glass framing a hardscrabble landscape that gives way to the dramatic sweep of the mountains. “I find the colors and the light of the desert very powerful,” says co-owner Lee Marmol, coprincipal of the Santa Monica architecture firm. “There’s a certain peaceful serenity to the stillness of the desert.”

The home’s 2,100 square feet of interior space is matched by an equal amount of outdoor living area. There’s also a courtyard with pool and fire pit. The house is reachable only by parking at the edge of the five-acre property and ascending a stone path to the hilltop site, which provides uninterrupted views of the often snowcapped San Jacintos.

While this was the first of many prefabricated homes designed by Marmol Radziner, local circumstances dictated its construction methods as much as pure intention did. Prefab made sense, says Marmol, because the sparsely populated area lacked the infrastructure and the workers for traditional home construction.

Looking onto the valley below, the site is often buffeted by high winds. “The wind is beautiful, but sometimes there’s a disconcerting character to it,” says Marmol, who can see the Coachella Valley’s hundreds of faraway wind turbines from the house. “It’s a kind of constant presence until it finally subsides.”

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Wild boars, bobcats, rattlesnakes, and rabbits are just a few of the critters that may walk through your door. One homeowner reports he was watching a movie when a kangaroo rat came into the living room and started watching with him.


Above, from left to right: A fire pit is a focal point of the house’s courtyard; Pre-fabricated steel modules contain wide openings that frame the surroundings like a stage proscenium; The living room connects to one of many covered outdoor spaces via floor-to-ceiling sliders; the architects designed the teak outdoor furnishings.



Gold Standard: Acido Dorado


Completed: 2010
Location: Joshua Tree
Size: 2,000 square feet

Last year, on a barren stretch of east Joshua Tree that pulls no punches, Echo Park architect Robert Stone built a residence that gives as good as it gets. His Acido Dorado—made of concrete blocks and wrought iron—welcomes the desert inside through large openings, gridlike screens, a mirrored ceiling, and expanses of gold-tinted glass. Some rooms are built into the ground.

Stone constructed Acido Dorado (translation: Golden Acid) and a nearby home called Rosa Muerta (Dead Rose) by himself. “I think it was some weird midlife-crisis urge,” he says. Acido Dorado’s golden sheen, he explains, suggests gaudiness and fraudulence as much as real luxury; hearts represent sincerity and love “if you drop your sense of cynicism,” and flowers, while a nod to architectural ornament, also invoke artificial flower memorials at the roadside. “I make things and stand back, and it takes me five years to figure out what it was,” he says.

Stone paid for Acido Dorado with credit cards “instead of waiting around for a rich client.” He rents out the home for about 50 weeks of the year to overnight guests and for fashion shoots. As for the evaporative cooler, he’d rather his guests not use it. “Why do we have to cater to people’s desires to have a box that is 68 degrees year-round?” he asks.

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Guns are a way of life for many out here. Architect Lloyd Russell once found his workers setting up construction debris, cans, and bottles inside his unfinished house for target practice. “It’s hard to imagine shooting at your design,” says Russell, “but that was fun.”


Above, from left to right: The home’s owner and architect, Robert Stone, plays with his son beneath the mirrored ceiling in the front of the house, which is partly screened with concrete blocks and wrought iron; The home, whose roof slopes down over the bedrooms, nestles into the rocky landscape.



Grid Lock: The itHouse


Completed: 2011
Location: Pioneertown
Size: 1,200 square feet

The itHouse is a short but very bumpy ride up from honky-tonk Pioneertown, above the Twentynine Palms Highway. Designed by the Hollywood firm Taalman Koch, the 1,200-square-foot, partly prefabricated structure is “an instrument for connecting us to the world instead of closing us off to the world,” says Alan Koch, who owns the remote house with Linda Taalman. (The couple collaborated on the design.) “All of human progress has this goal of annihilating space and time: iPhones and cars and airplanes and TiVo,” he adds. “But this house is a place where that runs backward a little bit.”

Electronics are verboten in the itHouse, and Koch delights in the lack of cell phone reception. “There’s a lot of freedom when people can’t find you: ‘Sorry I couldn’t reach you, I was busy relaxing,’ ” he says, chuckling. Koch believes the connection to the desert makes mundane tasks like sweeping or doing laundry meditative, and he catches even the least contemplative of his friends and family fading into a sort of desert-induced trance. Why not? Rest your head in the glass-walled bedroom, and you’ll feel as if you’re about to sleep in the shadow of a boulder.

While the itHouse soaks up the surrounding landscape, desert heat is another matter. Overhangs, window laminates, careful site orientation, and concrete floors keep the home surprisingly cool. Good thing, because the off-grid house, powered mostly by solar panels, has no air-conditioning. Occasionally, says Koch, “we’re very warm,” but he doesn’t see that as a bad thing. 

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Nearby Pioneertown was built in 1946 as a movie set for westerns, including those of Gene Autry, the Cisco Kid, and Buffalo Bill Jr. Nowadays it’s better known as the home of Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, which serves up barbecue hoedowns and KCRW-sponsored concerts.

Above, from left to right: Walls made of windows look onto Pioneertown’s otherworldly terrain; deep overhangs keep the sunlight from penetrating the living room most of the day; A Fireorb fireplace dominates the living room, with its stunning desert panorama. The dining area is tucked between the kitchen and the living room.


Photographs by Sian Kennedy. Illustrations by John Burgoyne

ALSO: See three more innovative homes in the Joshua Tree area 

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