Artists and architects have embraced the area as a place to start from scratch, away from everything, and make something new
Kristopher Dukes, a novelist and interior designer, and her husband, Facebook’s head of market development Matt Jacobson, live in a contemporary 1980s-era home designed by Ray Kappe in Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles. However, if they want to get away from it all, they head east and continue driving past Palm Springs, where a lot of the wealthy people in Los Angeles reside on weekends, to the high desert adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park. Ms. Dukes claims that she can truly unwind and disconnect there.
She states, “I feel like Palm Springs is more of an extension of Los Angeles,” but “the desert just has a completely different vibe that is art-driven, international, and very far away from everything.” Palm Springs is more of an extension of Los Angeles.
Prior to a few years ago, the couple’s only option for getting away from it all was to live in a prefabricated prototype home built by the renowned Marmol Radziner architectural firm. During the downturn in home sales in 2011, Jacobson purchased the property for approximately US$650,000. The two-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot home in Desert Hot Springs is modular, sparse, and off an unpaved road. “From this home, you can see the horizon and the beautiful way that the nearby mountains are framed,” says Ms. Dukes. I absolutely adore the sense of expansiveness it conveys.
After spending a weekend with Mr. Kappe and his wife, Shelly, at the Marmol Radziner house in 2013, the two couples decided to look at a second architecturally significant house in the area. This one was built over the course of two decades, beginning in 1987, and was designed by organic architect Kendrick Bangs Kellogg.
The home is built into one of the boulder-strewn hillsides that are the hallmark of the 800,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park, and Ms. Dukes was intrigued by the otherworldly landscape as well as the fascinating design after finding the property listed for sale on a real estate website. “Ms. Dukes says that the pictures on the internet made it look like a rendering.” It appeared impossible to construct a house with that appearance.”
After they entered, something else took place, despite the fact that her initial intention was to simply observe the location. “In person, it was even more stunning,” Ms. Dukes claims. “Mr. Jacobson was persuaded to change his mind when Mr. Kappe unequivocally told him, ‘You have to buy this house,’ ” Ms. Dukes says, noting that this was completely out of character for the architect, who is typically quiet and understated. Mr. Jacobson initially stayed in the car and stated that he did not want another desert house. In 2014, the couple paid US$2.95 million for the property.
An ‘Experimental Culture’
The Kellogg House, which has been featured in advertising campaigns for high-end lifestyle brands like Calvin Klein Home and Louis Vuitton, is a part of a larger story about how architects, designers, and artists who want to create without being restricted by the landscape around them can find freedom in the desert. Additionally, in the same way that Marmol Radziner and Kellogg constructed homes that are regarded as architecturally significant, other individuals have done so and intend to do so in the coming years.
In the meantime, buyers who want to buy or build a second home that is close to nature but away from Palm Springs’ bustle still have the option to do so in Joshua Tree, which has about 9,000 people living there; in Pioneertown, where you can find the renowned music venue and barbecue spot Pappy + Harriet’s, or in Pipes Canyon, which is more hip; or in other locations in close proximity to the national park, which hosted a record-breaking 2.8 million visitors in 2017.
Robert Stone, a Los Angeles-based architect who built the gold house (Acido Dorado) and the black house (Rosa Muerta) in Joshua Tree almost a decade ago, says, “I built architecture in Joshua Tree because it has a more open landscape, and a more open experimental culture.” Today, the Saint Laurent fashion house uses both as the backdrop for high-end photographs that appear in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. “I needed a blank canvas to do that because I wanted to build something truly new that redirects the history of architecture,” Mr. Stone continues. That empty canvas can still be found in Joshua Tree.”
Mr. Stone, who was born and raised in Palm Springs, gave a brief history to explain how we got to where we are now. “You would see a lot of open land, a mix of run-down shacks, and just a few far-flung houses that we now consider iconic if you looked at Palm Springs in the 1940s, when the very first real modern houses were built,” he says. The Kaufmann house, designed by Richard Neutra, is one of these. When it was built in 1946, it introduced the traditional indoor-outdoor lifestyle of Southern California as well as a new, more minimalist style of architecture. It’s interesting to note that Marmol Radziner carried out a meticulous renovation of the house in the early aughts. Prior to that, Barry Manilow and others had owned it, and it had become disorganized.
Mr. Stone goes on to say that condominiums have since replaced all of the shacks, and subdivisions have taken over the open land. He claims that Southern California modernism, which was popular in the 1960s, became less radical over time. The only thing that remains is a playground where the wealthy can bask in the sun, but there is no land on which to build or any space where architects can experiment with new ideas and play.
According to Rich Nolan, a real estate agent who oversees The Agency’s Coachella Valley offices, “there have been a lot of people priced out of Palm Springs” in the past two years. He points out that the median sales price of a single-family home in Palm Springs in June 2018 was US$649,125, which is 8% higher than the 2006 all-time high median price. Additionally, there is a lot of inventory that is significantly more expensive, such as the 14 ultramodern units that he is currently selling in a brand-new development called Linea Palm Springs, where prices start at US$2.7 million.
According to Mr. Nolan, the natural next step for potential buyers who are unable to access Palm Springs, Indian Wells, or Rancho Mirage—both of which have median sales prices of US$1.07 million or US$710,000—is to look at Joshua Tree, where there is still a substantial amount of land available, despite the presence of fewer resale properties.
Mojave Rock Ranch, a one-of-a-kind home on a huge piece of land that tells a story of the area’s past as well as its potential for the future, is one Joshua Tree resale property that is available.
A ‘Piece of Art’ for Sale
Mojave Rock Ranch, which is listed for US$1.95 million after recent price cuts (and a reduction in acreage) from US$2.9 million and earlier, US$4.5 million, has appeared in fashion campaigns and photo shoots, just like the Kellogg house and Mr. Stone’s homes. However, in this instance, it is not the architecture of the house but rather the environment, design, and landscaping of the property, which provides panoramic views of 225 acres of mostly undeveloped desert; treasures and trinkets from all over the world embedded in the walls of the numerous indoor and outdoor areas; and thousands of cacti, flowers, and sculptures scattered throughout the grounds, some of which are esoteric, obscure, or strange.
The outcome, which was created over the course of the past 25 years by owners Gino Dreese, 61, and Troy Williams, 56, is intended to arouse a sense of wonder in guests. In the past, guests have included Hollywood insiders as well as other movie and music luminaries, such as the Coppolas, the family of Ridley Scott, and the Beastie Boys.
Mr. Dreese says, “The ranch is our pride and joy,” pointing out that it all started with the purchase of a homestead cabin that was 800 square feet in size and was on 40 acres. Over time, they added to it and made it their own. They bought more land and more of the cabins, which were built in the 1950s, to rent to Hollywood actors and actresses who wanted to see the desert. He continues, “We were kind of the forerunners in the area.” Before we arrived, Joshua Tree had no rentals at all.”
In the early 2000s, they sold some cabins but kept the one they had originally purchased. In 2004, they went around the world and used a lot of what they had seen, experienced, and bought. Mr. Dreese claims, “We used everything we could to make it look funky and interesting.”
This included adding hued glass bottles in the walls and developing an adapted branch nook, called an African boma, around a roundabout clearing intended to be utilized for huge fires and outside feasts.
The couple now owns and operates a high-end landscape design business in Palm Springs, where they reside. According to Mr. Dreese, they’re selling because they’re ready to slow down a little bit and want to give the property to someone younger who can take it to the next level. It’s like buying a piece of art,” he says, adding that the property is completely isolated and could be used as a luxury rental or as an artists’ retreat or resort.
Preserving Art and Architecture
In an effort to preserve the homes as works of art, Ms. Dukes and Mr. Jacobson purchased the Kellogg house in Joshua Tree and the Marmol Radziner home in Desert Hot Springs. Ms. Dukes, on the other hand, discovered that, despite appearances, the Kellogg house is also extremely warm and cozy to live in. Ms. Dukes claims that during their approximately bimonthly trips to Joshua Tree, they frequently find themselves unwinding on the built-in, custom-made couches or on the decks with views of the park.
Ms. Dukes claims, “In pictures, it can look so Gaudi-esque.” However, you can simply enjoy the space while you are there by hanging out. It is comfortable and has no right angles. Inside, the walls almost embrace you.
Then there’s the intricate design, with golden spirals and patterns that look like shells from the ocean, which are fun to find and enjoy. Ms. Dukes says that the master bedroom ceiling is her favorite feature of the house because it looks like fingers with glass between them. “You can see the planes and the stars when you’re in bed at night,” she says. It’s truly magical, and everything is moving.”
Naturally, this is only a small portion of the significant architecture and design work that can be found in the area or will soon be. The Joshua Tree Retreat Center, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1946 and is also known as the Institute of Mentalphysics, can be found here at the moment.
Then there is the work of Joshua Tree-based interior designers and artists, such as Casa Joshua Tree and Cosmic American, who have amassed thousands of Instagram followers. Additionally, architects have a number of ambitious plans for the high desert, one of which is the Whitaker Studio Joshua Tree Residence, which will consist of interconnected, stark white shipping containers rising from the boulders.
Mr. Stone hopes that this is only the beginning, and that additional homes with artistic and architectural value will emerge in the future.
According to him, “I hope someone will read this article and decide to build property in the area.” We should create architecture that is as ambitious and relevant to our time as the first modern architecture was to its time using Joshua Tree as our blank canvas.” On November 19, 2018, this story was first published in Mansion Global magazine.