Photography by Ethan Kaminsky
The owners/architects, John Boccardo and J.R. Roberts of Boccardo Roberts Architecture and Design in Sausalito, also own the nearby Edris House, a fabled midcentury landmark designed by E. Stewart Williams in 1953. These are two designers with a deep understanding and appreciation of the desert’s midcentury modern design vernacular, despite their home base location in Northern California. But when it came to building a new 3,200-square-foot modern home, Roberts and Boccardo made their design up-to-the-minute, with low-maintenance and high-tech features that combine to exude a sense of calm and restfulness. This fusion proved successful both visually and structurally. In 2006, the house received the Palm Springs Modern Committee’s award for Excellence in New Modern Design.
Architects talk all the time about integrating structures with landscapes, but the plain fact is that few homes truly do. And when your property is located on a street called Vista Drive, the pressure to sketch a home with abundant views of that landscape only intensifies.
The duo’s first — and most important — decisions centered around the home’s footprint and how it would negotiate its hillside site. An earlier owner of the lot had angered neighbors with plans to erect a large, view-blocking Mediterranean-style villa. In fact, the resulting furor caused the former owner to jettison the project. “Knowing the history, we went to all the neighbors beforehand with preliminary plans,” Boccardo says. The pair wanted to minimize disruption to the site, and located the pool on the street side so they wouldn’t have to build a fence around the boundary and ruin the beauty of the natural wash there. And because they can’t control the destiny of the lot next door, they opted to place the living and dining area in the center of the house, ensuring that it would have unfettered views in two directions — forever.
Their rectangular great room, which they call “a pavilion,” is encased in glass on both of its long sides. One window wall overlooks the valley, the other the entrance courtyard, pool, and San Jacinto Mountains. From the road, it’s possible to see straight through a narrow horizontal clerestory above the great room. This gives the dwelling a lightness that belies its substantial steel and masonry components, and inspires “The Glass House” moniker. Also contributing to the feeling of suspension is that the pavilion is above grade, resting on steel I-beams. Its polished concrete floor appears to float above the rugged landscape of boulders and shrubs. There is even a large pane of glass, a “floor window,” that acts as the hearth for the double-sided fireplace between living room and den. Skittish guests and pets skirt the glass, Boccardo reports, but it never gets warm. Those without vertigo love to stand on the glass and look down. Through the glass, rocks and shrubs are visible below.
Flanking the pavilion are the bedroom suites — two on one side and one on the other. Through generous use of slim-mullioned aluminum Fleetwood windows and doors, each bedroom suite seems suspended in the landscape. Baths feature small glass mosaic tiles — a midcentury standby — and open walk-in showers to make users feel as though they are standing outside. Two of the baths contain soaking tubs “because they are part of our design vocabulary,” says Boccardo. “Although a lot of people in Palm Springs gave up on tubs a long time ago, we think they are important to have.” As open as the bathrooms are, privacy from neighboring homes is maintained by careful placement of walls and overhangs. A sitting area, two steps down from the living room, provides a cozy den for two of the bedroom suites.
Although the house was built for year-round living, the architects were mindful that many people use their desert homes seasonally or exclusively for weekend getaways. They paid particular attention to features that would make the house easy to maintain. There are high-tech solutions, such as a central vacuum system, whole-house water filtration, three zones for air conditioning, and elaborate security that includes a front gate with a camera and intercom. Low-tech solutions include materials chosen with utility in mind. The interior walls of the great room, for example, are burnished aggregate block. In a nod to the ’60s, their shape is the familiar thin rectangle of Roman masonry. But this modern version is unpainted, drawing its beauty from the natural colors of the aggregate stones. “The block reflects the color and strata that would have belonged on the site,” Boccardo says. Also, instead of being staggered in the traditional brick pattern, the blocks are stacked vertically up the walls. Although it’s impossible to tell from the surface appearance, some of the blocks are veneer only, while others are full 16- by 16-inch structural bricks.
Another easy-care product is the hardy board siding, used on the walls in the den area. Hardy board is a concrete material finished to look like wood. Five-inch-wide boards were applied to the wall in a board-and-batten pattern and stained. “It looks like wood, but it will last ten times as long,” Boccardo notes. The unfussy kitchen, fully part of the dining and living area, has dark-honed granite counters and stainless steel appliances that add interest to the mahogany cabinetry, including a microwave that looks like just another drawer.
Outside, the saline lap pool in front and the desert landscaping surrounding the home were chosen for their low maintenance and the way they ease the transition from structure to site. The poured aggregate side patio yields to gravel around the spa, which is surrounded by carefully placed rocks. Just beyond the rocks are boulders and gravel occurring naturally in the landscape. These incremental changes from inside to out represent that oh-so-elusive seamless transition between the built world and nature, between views and the view itself. This is the next phase of modern architecture, expressed in a new-century home that sits elegantly and lightly on the land.