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.
“The worst insult you can give someone in music is to say, ‘Hey, you sound like that other guy,’” Stone says. “When I was in graduate school, I was seeing how architects practice, and my motto of an ‘honest practice’ was much different from most of theirs. It was this weird ‘find your own personal truth,’ the way, in a sense, a musician has to find their own sound. If you put three musicians together in a room and they’re all playing the sound they hear in their head, you’re going to get a band that sounds like no other band. That’s what musicians are chasing, what they hear inside of themselves, 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 all that stuff. 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 to objects, in a sense. Then, at some point, I realized I was doing architecture with the art I was making, and I needed to bring the intelligence of art and the complexity of that practice to architecture.”
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 fun and amazing to have a house that plays a part in a bigger cultural thing. It’s not a risk. The real risk is building something like everyone else has.”
What everyone else does not have is a home like Acido Dorado (golden acid). While at first glance, this house — and the one Stone built next door, Rosa Muerta (dead rose) — might appear monochromatic, you soon realize that their monochrome backgrounds bring the houses’ multiple layers of texture into sharper focus. 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.
“Part of why it’s gold is because I like tight color combinations, and this house has about five colors of gold in it,” Stone says. “It’s a color that does 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 have none.’ When you hear about a gold house, you think, ‘Wow that’s going to be garish,’ but out here in this 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 a gesture,” Stone says with a laugh. “Notice I said, ‘I think.’ I was drawing sketches of houses 10 years ago, and you put a heart on it and it completely changes the meaning. It was a figure I was doing, and I’m not anymore. I don’t want people to think I’m the ‘heart guy.’ But again, these houses are the product of a guy who was dissatisfied with what architecture was doing, and I was putting this thing out there as a big challenge in a way. The houses come across as kind of sweet, but they’re really an aggressive thing. They’re sort of saying, ‘I dare you to fold this house into the canon.’”
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 space and the roof gets higher. Here, the roof is as high as can be when you walk in and then you drop down into the house and the whole horizon comes into view. 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 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 place who have a common interest in aesthetics and ideas.” And they have also found legions of fans in the worlds of fashion and design. Neiman Marcus, 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 architecture world to pay attention to them, and over time the depth of understanding of these weird little houses has grown and grown. It’s been really amazing.”