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Architect Robert Stone and I are planning my visit to Rosa Muerta, a textured and reflective black mirage, which materializes just east of Joshua Tree in Southern California. In our initial correspondence, Stone tries to illustrate what I’m in for: “The house sits out in the middle of the open desert, overgrown with weeds and grasses like an exquisite burned-out Barcelona Pavilion from another, much sexier universe.”
Several days later, my car thermometer climbs 17 degrees in under three hours, ultimately perching at 40 degrees celsius. Congested Los Angeles freeways give way to dirt roads, steep grades and stretches of dry, uninhabited land. The setting is extraterrestrial, to be sure. And when I finally the integrated threshold from scorched sand to smooth black concrete, indeed I feel I’ve stepped through the looking glass in Barcelona and into Stone’s iridescent, heat-bent and handcrafted galaxy (where I experience and instant drop in temperature under the dramatic overhang).
Reflections of Mies van der Rohe bounce, distorted, from the structure’s chrome columns. They replicate again in the (outdoor) living room’s low, mirrored canopy, which reflects back at the reflecting pool (also a spa) and makes the desert floor a ceiling. But with a nod to the columns, Stone urges me to consider the chrome details of a Mongoose BMX bike as well. Later, the architect alludes to legwarmers (yes, the ‘80’s fashion staple) as he explains how the black rope around each column visually disconnects the straight line of the supporting structure, “to make it float a little more”.
“Clearly, I understand what it means to take a chrome column, and it’s the Barcelona Pavilion- but it’s coming out of the dirt,” Stone says. “It’s not sitting on a plinth; it’s in the desert. I know what the high references are for these things, but there are also ones that are just close to my heart.”
In this way, Rosa Muerta is welded of dichotomous orientation points. It simultaneously quotes from the architecture of textbooks and references the twisted wrought iron of Southern California’s barrios. It borrows heavily from the architect’s personal experiences growing up in Palm Springs. The sunken living room, for instance, is reminiscent of a pool’s shallow end, where Stone says he spent much of his young life “gabbing with friends while everybody was skating”. Stone remarks on the unique view of the world achieved while sitting with his head just above ground level, one arm up, level with the landscape.
“Think of it like language,” Stone says of his aesthetic approach. I can go to Japan and learn how to ask where the train station is, but here I can speak with a kind of poetry and understanding that is much more subtle. That’s what I am after – a way to make architecture that can work culturally in subtle and intricate ways.”
Throughout the long conversation, our voices are punctuated by birdsong, the skittering of a lizard on concrete, and the distant growl of an engine. “I hope you get the dirt bike in the background,” Stone says with a laugh. “That really is the context.” Later, the architect, who writes prolifically of his work, quotes from his notebook: “The desert is awe inspiring and serene in its emptiness. But, just as important is the detritus of modern culture, a bleached out Coors can, or a shotgun shell on the ground, that reminds you that nature and culture cannot be separated.”
I arrived at Rosa Muerta on the heels of a fashion shoot, the only evidence of which remained in thousands of footsteps still littering the desert sand. Rosa Muerta is a public space, but the fingerprints of visitors readily wash off the metal appliances and custom-cast concrete blocks. Physically, the structure does not allow for someone else’s baggage (save for some ashes in the fire pit). “There’s no parking, no garage, no storage.” The nearest neighbour is over 180m away.
And so, Rosa Muerta has seen celebrations that resonated from Joshua Tree all the way to YouTube, but it has also hosted a visitor who spent five days meditating and been the site of a marriage proposal. “There will probably be all these babies named Rosa,” the architect laughs.
Stone says the space was designed for “parties”, but he uses the word as shorthand for the disconnect a visitor might feel in a structure that offers no narrative cues. “The aesthetic being completely original to this place, you come out here and have to reinvent yourself,” Stone says. “Who am I in this little black house?”
Then, after a moment’s thought, he adds: “In America, every community that’s worth a damn has an abandoned house that all the kids know about. And that’s where they go and party. In some ways, I am building that,” he says. “An open space with no adult supervision.”