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About four years ago, something unexpected happened on the eastern edge of Joshua Tree. Down a dirt road, on a large swath of rugged, untouched desert at the base of the mountains, architect Robert Stone began building two houses that recalibrate the notion of what new desert architecture can mean.
“I started as a musician and the worst insult you can give someone in music is to say, ‘You sound like that other guy,’” Stone says. He thinks there’s a perception among many people that it’s risky to build forward architecture that isn’t already accepted in the mainstream. “But my experience is exactly the opposite. It’s really rewarding to have a house that plays a part in a bigger cultural dialog and moves the art forward. It’s not a risk. The real risk is building something like everyone else and limiting everything to real estate comps and dollars per square foot.”
What everyone else does not have is a home like Acido Dorado. While at first glance, this house – and the one Stone built next door, Rosa Muerta – might appear monochromatic, you soon realize that their monochrome backgrounds bring the houses’ rich layers of texture to the foreground. This especially surfaces in the rough gold-painted block, the smooth fence dotted with metal flowers, and the reflection of the water in a shallow indoor reflecting pool at Acido Dorado.
”When I was in graduate school, I began noticing that there were a lot of foregone aesthetic conclusions being reached- the style of modernism was bankable finally and no matter what ideas were the claimed starting point – the work all looked the same.
My model of an ‘honest practice’ was more about asking questions that I didn’t know the answers to. It was about finding your own personal truth through that search; the same way, in a sense, a musician has to find their own sound. If you put three musicians together in a room and they’re each playing the sound they hear in their head, you’re going to get a band that sounds like no other band and it will have its own kind of beauty. That’s what real musicians are chasing, what they hear inside their heads, and I think the way to make architecture that’s compelling is to do that same thing – kind of find something that you can work with on a poetic level.”
Stone grew up in Palm Springs, where his father was a builder. “We’d move every two years after he’d built a new house,” Stone says. “He copied the modernism that everyone loves, and I grew up around that. It obviously forms a kind of background vocabulary for me, but at the same time, I never saw it as the end.”
While studying architecture at UC Berkeley, Stone minored in art history, and spent about 10 years working as an artist, making sculpture that he says had a social component to it: “It was all about how people relate through objects, in a sense. Then, at some point, I realized I was really thinking about architecture with the art I was making, and I needed to bring the intelligence and breadth of current art and the complexity of that practice to architecture.”
“Part of why it’s gold is because I like tight color combinations that resonate with each other, and this house has about five really close colors of gold in it,” Stone says. “It’s also a color that contains everything that I wanted my architecture to do- ‘Gold’ has so much cultural baggage that it’s impossible to consider it as an abstract. It’s inseparable from the meaning we assign to it. By doing a house that’s gold, I’m saying, ‘Let’s deal with these associations and make architecture that accepts those kinds of connotations and makes something more of them’ -instead of pretending they don’t exist- which is what architecture has done for decades. When you hear about a gold house, you think, ‘that’s going to be garish’, but out here in this raw space, once it becomes sort of a monochrome, it becomes a natural color in a sense.”
He has a tougher time explaining the big heart on the front of the house. “I think it was an intuitive gesture in the beginning,” Stone says with a laugh. “Notice I said, ‘I think.’. . I was drawing sketches of houses 10 years ago, and I thought it was funny but interesting how if you put a heart on a drawing it completely changes the meaning and opens up questions that are not being asked in architecture. It was a figure I was doing partly because it is so anti-heroic. I’m not anymore. I don’t want people to think I’m the ‘heart guy’. But again, these houses are the product of someone who was bored with the narrow conceptual range of sculpturalist architecture, and I was putting this thing out there as a big challenge in a way. The houses come across as kind of sweet on the surface, but it‘s kind of an aggressive thing. They’re sort of saying, ‘I dare you to fold this house into the canon.’ It makes people question what it means, and nobody ever asks what a Gehry building ‘means’. I am just asking different questions that have never really been asked in architecture, and that at least leads me someplace new, that is my own.
Equally intriguing and nonconformist is Rosa Muerta. “I’m sure it sounds crazy – a black house in the desert,” Stone says. “But when you see it, it makes all of the color around it pop. The block walls don’t really look black, because you’re seeing a bunch of tan on them that’s reflected off the desert.” As you walk into the house, you experience the inverse of a classic modernist design where you come into a low space and the roof gets higher. Here, the roof is as low as possible when you walk in and the whole horizon is in view, and then you drop down into the house and it is larger on the inside. The home is completely open to the exterior, which Stone says gives it a magical air. “It seemed like it would be sort of an amazing experience to be in this space that’s finished to this degree but open. It’s kind of like camping – you’re connected to the outdoors the whole time.”
While Stone is the first to admit that the houses aren’t for everyone, he says they’ve opened up his world. “These houses bring people from all over the world who have a common interest in aesthetics and ideas.” And they have also found legions of fans in the worlds of fashion and design. Vogue, Roberto Cavalli, and Marie Claire, among many others, have shot photography with Acido Dorado and Rosa Muerta as their muse. The houses have taken on a life of their own, and the fashion world has really embraced them and presented them in this different way,” Stone says. “That kind of made it OK for the mainstream architecture world to like them, and over time the depth of understanding of this architecture has grown and grown. It’s been really amazing.”
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