Dwelling on the Desert: Architect Robert Stone – by Britt Collins

Architect Robert Stone’s two sleek, rule-bending desert residences have a definite sense of grand ambition behind them, given that he feels “every house should be a masterpiece in someone’s eyes”.

There’s nothing new about Californian desert houses but few are completely built from scratch by one architect and infused with personal meaning. Robert Stone is rewriting the rules about mid-century modernism, minimalism and, well, architecture. Six years ago, the Los Angeles architect created something spectacular and unexpected on the fringes of the Joshua Tree National Park. Down a lonely stretch of dirt road, he constructed two rule-bending properties with sensitivity and vision.

Rosa Muerta (‘dead rose’ in Spanish), his first one, an all-black, gothic Blade Runner-style affair, was inspired by roadside death shrines, low-rider cars, deserted swimming pools and burnt-out houses from the 1970s. Stone said this is what happens to your senses when there is an absence of colour. Everything becomes about texture and sheen, and the colours of the surrounding landscape itself really pops off. That small house in the desert was designed to change the history of architecture”.

He continued this somewhat surreal aesthetic with Acido Dorado (‘golden acid’, a drug reference), a glam gold Gucci-esque palace that shimmers like a mirage and transforms inside and out throughout the day with the changing light.

—“My expectations were contradictory. I’m very ambitious for the ideas behind my work. However, I was really shooting for some kind of ‘underground’ success that mattered to me.”

Robert Stone

His fantastical follies, part art piece and part rental getaway, are masterpieces of subtlety and sparseness. “I think every house should be a masterpiece in someone’s eyes or why bother?” says Stone, a shaven-headed, tattooed former punk rocker whose laid-back air and style hides an almost obsessive intensity. “My expectations were contradictory. I’m very ambitious for the ideas behind my work. However, I was really shooting for some kind of ‘underground’ success that mattered to me.”

The design and fashion world took notice, enabling him to scatter his seed of influence further afield and gather an international following. Both spaces have featured in countless shoots from Elle Décor to Playboy, among many others, in a Roberto Cavalli campaign and Steven Klein shot Rosa Muerta and Acido Dorado for American Vogue. “I’ve always been inspired by fashion so the respect is mutual,” says Stone. “My studio looks like a cross between a car shop and a teenage girl’s bedroom with tools and machines everywhere and magazine tear-sheets on the walls. There are aspects of fashion that architects should take note of. I think that capturing a moment in time and transforming it into something profound is the hardest thing to do. It’s a great example of how an engaged and vital creative culture works.”

Stone was brought up among the palm trees and canyons of Palm Springs, an oasis of mid-century modernism, where he soaked up the retro sophistication and rugged simplicity of his environs. “I lived in and around a lot of iconic modernist architecture and it gave me a much broader view,” he says, and taught him to look at spaces from a sensory perspective and human context. “People didn’t just sit around in Eames chairs reading magazines or smiling by the pool — they lived, died, laughed, cried and loved in those houses. If you change the way you look at things, everything changes.”

After studying architecture at University California Berkeley, he spent a good decade as a studio artist and musician. “I got a lot out of punk rock but it was about more than style,” he says. “For me it provided an early example that truth has its own kind of unconventional beauty. If you can find a way to play the sounds you hear in your head, rather than the ones you hear on the radio, it will be beautiful.”

With this punk DIY approach, he went out into the wilderness with no clients or commissions and hand-built Rosa Muerta by himself over three years. Learning at the elbow of his father, a builder, he did everything — digging, bricklaying, plumbing, wiring, designing — which he “considers part of being a good architect” knowing “both the material and the ideas of architecture”. Next, he designed Acido Dorado, a meditation of opposites as he describes it, a short distance away, and paid for it with credit cards “instead of waiting around for a rich client”.

He chose the Joshua Tree because it was a storied rock ’n’ roll and spiritual retreat, and the raw, primitive landscape provided an ideal foil for his philosophy of an architecture that not only could co-exist with nature but would be perfected by it. “I started in the desert because I grew up there and I have a deep and complex understanding of that culture and place. The desert has a very rich and complex culture, and a few dead rock stars are just one part of it. I felt it was the best context for me to make a strong debut.”

The heart of Stone’s work lies in being deeply rooted to its surroundings and its mesmerising subtleties — glass walls, mirrored ceilings, reflecting pools and tinted glass surfaces soak up the light and the views — fusing the sweep of sky, sand and scrubby high-desert panorama into one singular vision. The floor-to-ceiling sliders and grid-like screens open up 80 percent of the buildings to the elements, and wild animals such as bobcats, jackrabbits, roadrunners and ravens.

Stone rents out the two sleek desert dwellings for about 50 weeks of the year for fashion shoots and to people seeking peace and solitude under his development Pretty Vacant Properties (named, naturally, after the Sex Pistols’ song). The houses belong to the people who occupy them and “somehow find the right people naturally”, he says. “There is no velvet rope. I answer all enquiries personally and simply ask people to introduce themselves. Most are creatives in film, music, art, but sometimes a scientist or CEO will surprise me by being really into architecture. It opens up my world to have some common connection with all of these people.”

Driven by curiosity and appreciation for nature and the wider culture, Stone is actively seeking places to dream up his stunning, uncompromising creations and is currently designing a house on the edge of a national forest. “I’m doing one house at a time and I put everything I have into each one.”