Beauty and Spirit



Near the end of South Palm Canyon Drive, a large, lone structure juts from the rocks — a subtle, contemporary architectural feat of sharp angles and curved walls. Visitors to the Indian Canyons wonder what’s inside — perhaps the digs of a Hollywood celebrity or maybe a new-age church.

The road leading in warns, “Private property. No trespassing. Visitors will be prosecuted.” This keeps curious visitors at bay. Another sign reveals it is the Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians tribal building. This is as close as non-Cahuillas can get to the $10 million meeting space. The building, completed last spring, replaces the 2,400-square-foot tribal building on South Palm Canyon Drive. A fire in 1951 gutted the original round house in downtown Palm Springs.

“The tribal building, or round house, has always been a place where we come together for weddings, wakes, celebrations, and ceremonial dances,” says Vyola Ortner, former tribal leader and chairman of the Aqua Caliente Tribal Building Design Committee.

In 2001, the Agua Calientes had budgeted $270,000 to remodel and expand the South Palm Canyon building to accommodate the tribe’s growth (more than 350 members). They scrapped the plans in favor of this new, 12,000-square-foot building on seven acres of tribal land slightly north of the entrance to the Indian Canyons.

“The design evolved like a phoenix coming from the earth,” says Ortner, one of five women on the Tribal Building Design Committee. “I wanted a happy gathering place, while for others [on the committee], it had different meanings.”

Designed with curvaceous walls and jutting angles, the contemporary structure nestles into the canyon and remains true to the roots of the tribe. “We wanted to provide a place with a quiet strength with endurance to serve many generations in the future,” says Palm Springs architect Reuel Young of Interactive Design.

The tribe charged Young and associate Michael McAffey with designing a structure that accommodates up to 350 people. They split the building and linked a main building and a small bridal suite with a common roof that frames the sweeping canyon view. Stepping stones salvaged from the old building link the two sides. Today, brides walk this path for their wedding ceremony. Depending on the season, weddings are held outdoors amid numerous fountains and waterscapes. The circular fire pit is primarily used for dancing and celebrating life’s milestones including birth, marriage, and death.

The curved interior walls embrace large crowds.

“They’re like the arms of a mother gathering in the whole tribe,” Young says. Sloped exterior walls achieve another of Young’s goals: to provide protection — “more like a cave and not a country club.”

More than anything, spirituality transcends the atmosphere. “It’s almost like a cathedral with the soaring spaces and all the light inside,” Ortner says, noting that the ceilings rise higher than 28 feet in some places, and the poured-concrete floor was fashioned after the canyon bottom.

Yet, an improbable intimacy permeates the main space, the Lodge Room, thanks to interior designer Wayne Williamson of Insight West Interior Design of Palm Desert. “I started fantasizing about what I’d do if this were my living room,” says Williamson, who divided the cavernous space into small individual groupings befitting large groups and small, family events. Adults and children find it a comfortable place to hang out.

A 65-foot sofa — made of foam rubber rocks covered in a silicone fabric mixed with the site’s own sand — commands immediate attention next to the double-door entry.

Neighboring mountains and canyons set the color palette. “I literally took the color scheme from the desert,” says Williamson, who used color boards with canyon rocks, tree bark, and native flora and fauna as the base for fabrics, tiles, paint, and wall and floor coverings.     

The building is “as much a piece of sculpture as it is architecture,” says Palm Desert landscape architect Michael Buccino. “It couldn’t look like something we would do at a country club.” Rather, he incorporated the native surroundings and natural emotion of the canyons where the Aqua Calientes lived for many years. The landscaping had to complement the architecture and bring the canyon floor right onto the site. creosote bush, paloverde, mesquite, desert sage, ocotillo, desert willow trees, barrel cactus, and ironwood trees — all native to Andreas and Palm canyons — punctuate the grounds.

“It’s such a beautiful building and a shame we can’t share  it with nontribal members,” Ortner says, noting that’s her only regret about the project. “Maybe one day tribal leaders will open their ‘home’ so everyone can appreciate its beauty and spirit.”

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