Living in the high desert isn’t for the faint of heart. The wild, untamed landscape contrasts starkly with the manicured golf courses and angular architecture of Palm Springs, its neighbor to the south. Yet the area’s beauty is undeniable—from the surreal vistas of freestanding boulders to the iconic Joshua trees dotting the terrain to the vastness of the Milky Way above.
The high desert has long been a refuge for intrepid creative types. Aldous Huxley experimented with psychedelics in his high desert abode in Llano. Gene Autry and Roy Rogers built the perfectly preserved Western film set of Pioneertown. For the past two decades, artist Andrea Zittel has been organizing the site-specific biennial-ish program High Desert Test Sites. It’s a place that attracts dreamers, undeterred by the inhospitable environment.
Los Angeles-based architect Linda Taalman picked up the mantle of her predecessors when she decided to build a glass house in the desert. With summer temperatures often breaking 100 degrees and winter dipping below freezing, a glass house could easily have become an uninhabitable boondoggle.
Instead Taalman applied green design innovations such as passive cooling, solar energy, and radiant floor heating to create an entirely off-grid house. With components prefabricated off site to reduce the cost, the small house embraces the aesthetics of California modernism—an open floor plan, generous use of natural light, and an appreciation of the natural landscape—while encouraging homeowners to build the structure themselves.
Taalman’s house in Pioneertown, dubbed the iT House, became a prototype for customizable prefab homes. The iT House, completed in 2009 with her former partner Alan Koch, well predated COVID but the desert provides a readymade location for isolation. “Building a house in the desert was already a quarantine effort to get away from the rest of the world,” explains Taalman. As more and more creative Angelenos are drawn to high desert living, the house has become, the, uh, “it” house of the pandemic. Taalman’s designs have recently become more popular than ever.
All slideshow photos by Dré Nitze Nelson
With seven iT houses now in varying stages of construction and completion in a single high desert neighborhood, an unintentional community has sprung up, uniting the owners in their love for off-grid living that doesn’t sacrifice beauty. Nearly all of the homeowners work in creative industries, from film to music to publishing and museums. It’s not easy to create a community when you can’t physically see your neighbors but the IT House has become a way of connecting friends.
For designer Dré Nitze Nelson, a Berliner who has built an iT House on a rocky outcropping on five acres, COVID presented a unique opportunity to enjoy his house. “I’m spending more time there than anywhere else,” he says. The biggest surprise to Nitze Nelson has been the community he’s found in the desert. He’s become close friends with other iT House owners, including married neighbors Pamela Holm and Phil Clevenger.
“There’s a lot of likeminded people here. People wind up here for the same reasons,” says Holm.
Perhaps it’s building their own homes, or the rugged demands of living off grid, or waking up to the same strange Martian terrain of the Mojave, but the iT House has created a sense of kinship during a time of extreme isolation.
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