The first homes in what is likely to be the last major hillside development in Palm Springs are opening their doors just in time for Modernism Week. The Desert Palisades project — a 110-acre housing tract on an environmentally sensitive site in Chino Canyon — has not been without its controversy because of the pristine desert landscape it occupies but, in fact, that landscape is at the heart of the careful thinking and conscientious planning efforts that promise to make Desert Palisades extraordinary.
Nearly a decade ago, the owners of the property began working with Marvin Roos and MSA Consulting, a local planning and engineering firm, to study the site and create a master plan for its future development. Eight years ago, architect Lance O’Donnell was brought on to design a house for the site. Known for his sustainable approach to architecture, O’Donnell was keenly aware that the various pieces of the project needed to be assembled carefully to gain approval from both the city and the community.
“Sensitivity to the site was of the utmost importance,” says O’Donnell. “Smoke Tree Ranch, developed in the 1930s, was a model [Desert Palisades developers] looked at. [It was] a community with a continuous desert landscape and a web of native flora and fauna running through the site. We knew the previous generation’s idea of housing developments situated around golf courses just wasn’t appropriate here.”
Preserving the site’s natural landscape is a critical element of the Desert Palisades project. Characterized by rugged boulder-strewn fields and commanding 360-degree views of the Coachella Valley floor that stretch as far as the Salton Sea, the site is located in the stunning Chino Cone alluvial fan and is framed on three sides by the majestic San Jacinto, Santa Rosa, and Chocolate mountain ranges. Boulders that are displaced from the individual construction sites will be redeployed elsewhere in the landscape to retain the native character of the environment. Central to the project’s guidelines are a focus on building with sustainable practices and materials and a mandate that designs follow the natural contours of the site, with stepped building pads and an overall height limit of 18 feet. O’Donnell likes to think of the height limit as a blanket that hovers overhead, gently echoing the surrounding topography.
THE O’DONNELL HOUSE, PALM SPRINGS
ARCHITECT: Lance O’Donnell
YEAR BUILT: 2017
The east-facing front of the house sits atop a garage that is virtually invisible from certain vantage points. O’Donnell points out, with a well-earned hint of satisfaction in his voice, that the house almost seems to disappear into the landscape.
Tours of the O’Donnell house are being conducted daily during Modernism Week, February 16-26. For tickets, visit modernismweek.com.
Given the knowledge of the area he gained during the master planning period, it was only natural that O’Donnell would remain involved with Desert Palisades and would extend that involvement to the siting and design of some of the first houses to break ground. In December, the development’s roads were going in and plans for the first few homes to be complete by spring were underway. All three of the initial homes are located in Phase I of the project, a roughly U-shaped configuration that embraces the west, east, and south areas of the vast site. Phase II will run from north to south, approximately down the center of the overall site.
Nicknamed “O2 House,” O’Donnell and his firm’s first house to rise in Desert Palisades sits on Lot 63 on the lyrically named Celestial Court. Like the other two projects currently under construction — the Al Beadle House on Lot 94 (page 98) and the Sunset Idea House on Lot 50 — O’Donnell’s project sets an extremely high bar for future construction in the development. Unlike many other contemporary “cookie cutter” neighborhoods with uninspired avenues of virtually identical homes, buyers of the individual Desert Palisades lots will be responsible for the design of their own homes, while respecting the overall project guidelines.
Because of Desert Palisades’ 900-foot elevation at the base of the mountains, siting of the individual homes is of paramount importance and must take into consideration various climate conditions, as well as maintaining privacy vis-à-vis neighboring homes. One of the best views from many of the individual lots is toward the dramatic field of windmills to the north.
The view south across the the open plan living room. The art and furnishings were
curated by Veronica Fernandez and Carlos Antonio, respectively. The dining table is
by Paul Evans and the Brno dining chairs are by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. The sofa
is from B&B Italia, the Escorial rug is by Lorenzo Castillo for The Rug Company, and the coffee table was designed by Karl Springer. The painting on the south wall is by John McLaughlin, 1965.
O’Donnell, a native son or “desert rat” as the locals like to say, grew up in Indio and then Palm Desert before he went north to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where he studied architecture and then UCLA for graduate school. He set up his own architecture practice in the mid-1990s and acknowledges the potent impact on his work by the area’s “desert modernists,” many of whom — Albert Frey, E. Stewart Williams, and Donald Wexler — were still alive when he started. O’Donnell emphasizes the importance of knowing (and learning from) these architectural pioneers and speaks of his close relationship to Wexler, who, after he “retired,” would come to O’Donnell’s office three days a week and sketch alongside him. Wexler, he says, was always embracing new ideas and new materials and it’s clear that the two men approached their work from a similar point of view. It’s in his blood, he says, as it was for his desert modern predecessors, to be acutely aware of the desert’s seasonal climate changes and transitions. Even so, over the course of the last decade he learned more about the vagaries of this particular site, its natural conditions, and how to deploy and take advantage of them.
O’Donnell’s Lot 63 house is a 3,200-square-foot home that, because of the way it is articulated and sited, has a light, elegant appearance and appears much more minimal and compact than its square footage would suggest. The house is an ensemble of three individual volumes that work together as a unified whole. The east-facing front of the house sits atop a garage that is virtually invisible from certain vantage points. O’Donnell points out, with a well-earned hint of satisfaction in his voice, that the house almost seems to disappear into the landscape. O’Donnell’s design not only makes for a contemporary, elegant house but captures the winter warmth while reflecting and shading from the intense summer sun, and takes advantage of cooling breezes. The operable windows of the roof flap that O’Donnell designed for the north side of the structure draw hot air out of the interior, while keeping desert dust from entering the house. The roof flap, constructed of zinc-coated standing seam metal, rises slightly above the roof plane to allow for a band of clerestory windows, and folds over the north side of the house, creating design and textural interest as well as privacy on the more public face of the property from which visitors will approach. A sophisticated solar electric system by Heliopower Energy Solutions is seamlessly integrated into the south sloping roof and is located to shade the living room roof below.
The open kitchen is simple and tailor-made for entertaining.
O2’s clean, modernist lines.
A pool with a view also includes glimpses of paintings by John Baldessari and
Henry Codax in the living room.
The as yet undeveloped Chino Canyon tract.
The guest bathroom contains a satellite mirror by
Eileen Gray and pottery by Jeremy Briddell.
Oriented longitudinally at a slight east/west angle on the site, the house is characterized by seamless transitions between indoors and out and features a media and wine room on the garage level, and, on the upper level, two guest bedrooms at the western end, a master suite cantilevering slightly over the garage at the eastern end, four and a half baths, and a casita. While the home’s north facade is more opaque, the public, or living, areas of the house completely open up the south side with floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors to expansive terraces overlooking the pool, taking prime advantage of the natural heating power of the intense desert sun and an incredible vista of the Coachella Valley. On the north side of the house, there are a number of smaller balconies to lend intimacy to private areas while still capturing the spectacular views and maintaining a close connection to the landscape. “There are so many issues to grapple with to make a building sustainable, including energy codes, water quality, and water quantity,” says O’Donnell, “that if you’re going to build a glass house in the desert, you really need to figure out how to orient it right.”
The master bedroom is dominated by a Tatlin bed from Minotti, the Monarch Fire by Alexander McQueen for The Rug Company, and Drift Mirror by Fernando Mastrangelo.
Above the bed in one of the guest bedrooms is one half of a diptych by Ed Ruscha
Heaven. The companion piece, Hell, hangs in the other guest bedroom.
WHO MADE IT HAPPEN FOR THE BEADLE AND O’DONNELL HOUSES
Miele Kitchen and laundry appliances
Mitsubishi Electric Cooling & Heating
AVIR, Inc. Audio video lifestyle technology
Better Built, Inc. Home builder
Blair Heating & Air HVAC
BMC Framing contractor
Brizo Kitchen and bath fixtures
Cambria Bath and kitchen countertops
Carlos Antonio Designs Interior and exterior furnishings (O’Donnell)
Castro Roofing Roofing contractor
Desert Alfa Romeo Automobile
Dunn-Edwards Paints Interior and exterior paint
Farley Interlocking Pavers Driveway pavers
Ferguson Bath, Kitchen & Lighting Gallery Plumbing, kitchen, and bathroom fixtures
Veronica Fernandez Fine art Advising Services Fine art curator (O’Donnell)
HelioPower Solar system
Ikon ltd. Gallery Fine art (O’Donnell)
Niche Outdoor Outdoor furnishings (O’Donnell)
Palm Springs Action Painting Paint contractor
RGA Landscape Architects, inc. Landscape architect
Steamist Steam Showers
Western Window Systems Windows and doors
The material palette of the O2 House exterior was chosen to articulate particular areas of the structure: concrete block, concrete, stucco, glass, zinc-coated standing seam metal, and natural anodized satin-finished aluminum. O’Donnell chose a variety of gray tones for the solid materials, with the stucco surfaces painted either dove or silver gray, a color palette that serves to marry the physical structure more closely to the silvery tones of the desert landscape. Where there is opaque infill on the structure to give certain areas more privacy, O’Donnell is employing a rhythmic, changing pattern of standing seam metal since it offers subtle shade and shadow variations. He likes the durability and the idea that the shadows cast by these ribbed panels mark time and season of the desert sun. An interesting and eclectic selection of native, drought tolerant plants for the new landscape surrounding the structure is a critical element of O’Donnell’s sustainable approach to the site. RGA Landscape Architects planted six Blue Palo Verde trees at the front of the house and a grid of 15 aloe vera plants to mark the entrance. Two additional Blue Palo Verde trees splay from the northeast corner of the house and on the south side of the guest wing, there is another bed of aloe vera and smaller beds of tightly planted Regal Mist while hedges of Trailing Indigo Bush mask an enclosure for pool equipment. With such stunning natural beauty surrounding the property, O’Donnell took a light touch with new plantings. He also made sure to create opportunities to capture rare and precious rainwater and direct it to the planted areas or to the underlying aquifer where it will recharge swales and other areas needing a dose of moisture.
The interior of the house is open, luminous, and airy with large expanses of glass that elicit the feeling that inside is out and vice-versa. A great room that like a large glass box is at the heart of the house offers views to both north and south. Like an aerie perched high above the twinkling lights of the city and valley below, one can imagine the wonderment of the home’s residents as they experience the desert in all its glory from the rising morning sun to a warm lazy afternoon by the pool to a cocktail on the terrace enveloped by the big sky with its myriad stars shining above.
Here, as in all of his architectural projects, Lance O’Donnell puts an undeniable contemporary spin on midcentury modern design principles: clean, linear, simple, and transparent volumes meant for the indoor/outdoor living that is a hallmark of the desert lifestyle. He also contemporarized it by making the property as sustainable as possible.Like the desert modernists before him, O’Donnell continues to push forward, finding new and innovative ways to build in our valley, all the while remembering Wexler’s enthusiasm for experimentation, for new ideas and new materials. “Being a modern architect and doing modern work,” O’Donnell asserts, “is not about recreating the past.” Indeed, with his O2 House in Desert Palisades, O’Donnell has created an exemplary, highly contemporary model for desert living.