A golden home in the desert

Acido Dorado, Joshua Tree. Picture / Brad Landsill

A beautiful, dramatic and trippy property in Joshua Tree, Acido Dorado offers luxury desert living in one of the world's most incredible houses. The 130sq m golden house is the project of LA-based architect Robert Stone, who designed and built the space to "engage the culture".

Long and low, the building sits within the landscape as a sort of desert mirage made up of three shades of acid-tinged metallic gold. Inside, gold sits alongside glass and mirror accents. Stone's use of colour is less about impact and more about turning the house into background for the people and the meaning they bring to it. "The gold is carefully indexed to the sand to pull into the background after the surprise wears off," says Stone. Wrought iron gates are scattered with thousands of gold roses, and a heart symbol sits on the side: both deep with symbolism, and used to challenge what is considered unacceptable in architecture. He shares some more background to his unique project.

Why did you create the properties?
I have a different way of thinking about architecture that locates the meaning not in the object - but between the object, viewer and wider culture. That is why my work incorporates familiar and unfamiliar elements. The basic idea is that architecture can be more than just abstract space, shape, and form that the architect assigns meaning to after the fact.

Instead it can engage the personal and cultural circumstances around it and attract meaning assigned from the wider world around it.

Architects are not trained to think this way. they want to control how their buildings are perceived so they design buildings that disengage and try not to remind you of anything. I want to make buildings that become greater than themselves, and greater than me, by engaging the complex cultural circumstances around them.

Some people seem surprised by how these two little houses have become some of the most widely photographed structures in the world, appearing in countless fashion shoots, films, and art projects. The houses do that because they are designed to engage the culture - not just sit here as a big dumb abstract sculpture that connects to nothing outside of itself - but designed to actually become part of the wider world.

Talk me through the initial process, from concept to you building the property yourself. How long did it take?
It took three years physically, but I have been working on these ideas for 20 years or so. I designed them and went out there and built them. I know it is unusual for an architect to know how to build but it shouldn't be. 

What was your initial goal with the design of the buildings? What, if anything specific, inspired the design?
I just wanted to show the potential for architecture based on new ideas. For most of my lifetime architecture has been kind of stuck in one place. I turned to art in its varied practices - conceptual, representational, performative - so that is where my thought process comes from. That is where I learned to ask a wider variety of questions about how buildings affect us. . . and it led to this.

Now people say that I work like an artist, but I contend that it is absolutely architecture. It just has more breadth and depth of ideas than we are used to. Nobody even asks what a Frank Gehry building "means" - it isn't a relevant question - but my work is all about that question.

The strong use of colour is stand out, but what are some other important design details throughout the homes? 
I really work on these things and distill them until they are more than a collection of details. The point when I find them interesting is when there are two or three opposing ideas that constantly modify each other so that the house always surprises. None of the details stand on their own - it is all about the mix and space between them.

Why the strong use of gold and black?
I use colour the opposite of what you might think, and people understand this when they are out there. I don't use strong colours to command attention. I use them to unify textures and ideas that you wouldn't normally accept together into a singular object.It actually turns the whole house into background for the people and the meaning they bring to it. The black is really a lack of colour, and the gold is carefully indexed to the sand to pull into the background after the surprise wears off. 

Why the heart and roses?
Looking back I think those elements were kept in the projects because they are so challenging to the architectural canon, but deep enough in their meaning that they are sort of undeniable. Representation like the roses, and a symbol like heart were unacceptable in architecture for decades and probably still are for most people. But I use them because they challenge that denial with so much depth once you consider them further. The metal roses represent living plants but are always seen against the backdrop of a "dead" (but actually very alive) desert landscape.

They bring up questions of real/fake, life/death and invert the terms - like the mirrors invert the space. The heart appears at first as a sweet pop gesture but it is ultimately an aggressive gesture that challenges our cynicism. I think of it as equal parts aggression and sweetness - like a young couple making out in public and not caring if it bothers anyone. That is how I feel about the architecture world. I want to make amazing buildings however I can and I don't care what the rules are that are in place right now. 

Acido Dorado in Joshua Tree, California, was designed by Robert Stone. Picture / Brad Landsill

How did the desert landscape influence the design?
I grew up in Palm Springs so I do not see it as an empty visual landscape. I can never separate it from culture - nature and culture are always connected.

Who did you create the houses for?
People who are cool enough to care about these things. I thought there would be maybe a few hundred of them scattered all over the world. It went a bit further but the focus stays the same. 

What do you hope people experience when staying at the properties?
I hope people experience something about themselves that has little to do with me. I think the houses are catalysts because of what I put into them. 

Do you stay in the properties yourself? How often do you aim to visit?
I am super busy running my studio in Los Angeles. My work has taken off but I still do everything myself because I need that connection to the work. I haven't taken a day off in five years. I really did build those houses for the world. The houses don't even feel like they are mine. A lot of guests have had deep personal experiences there. I think the houses belong to all of them.

Any plans for more properties on the site?
No. I am building in other places - current projects are in a forest and in the city. I have a lot of other ideas to work out that are not connected to the desert.

Architecture seems to be such an essential element of the desert - from Palm Springs' mid-century modernism to the desert's DIY spirit. What do you think feeds this appreciation?
I know this may be against the grain of your story but I wish you would print it: I actually think it isn't true. The first few early modernist houses were real attempts to ask and answer the question of who we are and how we should live. After that Julius Shulman turned mid-century into a "lifestyle" and thousands of copies of modern houses were built. After that - for the past 50 years - there has not been a single piece of ambitious or historically important architecture built in the region.

As much as I find the "LA formalist" architects of the 90s to be boring, you have to ask why there is no Gehry or Morphosis house in the desert from that era. Or, why there is no Herzog & de Mueron building or Rem Koolhaas or anything from the recent past that aims to redefine architecture on the world stage. I would like to change that and raise the level of ambition for architecture in the desert, but people seem very focused on what happened 60 years ago, without recognising that what made that time great is that people were building for their own time.

The DIY spirit that you refer to is a real cultural force - but it doesn't really produce ambitious architecture that asks new questions, It mostly expresses itself in pre-fab and green building projects that narrow architecture down to problem solving. It can be so much more.

What do you love most about Joshua Tree?
That is impossible to answer. I am so deeply connected to places - Joshua Tree, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Berkeley - that I get sort of confused by such a question. It's like asking what I love about my son - I love the good, the bad, everything.

Why is the desert and Joshua Tree such a hotbed of creativity and spirituality?
This is complicated. There is real creativity, people making things happen that are truly new and culturally significant. But there are also a whole lot of people just making things with no intent to change the status quo, just because they love it. Both are important, and sort of feed off each other but they shouldn't be confused. The desert is both of these things overlaid on each other, which makes it very confusing and a lot of people. Spirituality? I am an atheist. I try not to notice that stuff, and just appreciate the good in people.

For more information, see Pretty Vacant Properties.

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