Visual Culture

The Stark Beauty of Desert Architecture

Scott Indrisek
Nov 5, 2018 5:31PM

Deserti Tascabili DJ Complex, AutonomeForme, 2017, Djerba. Courtesy of AutonomeForme.

Deserts are places of drama and endless views—rolling expanses of sand, canyons, and scenery that can often resemble the topography of a foreign planet. But they’re also punishing environments. Generally, an area is considered a desert if receives less than 10 inches of annual rainfall—and those conditions will become increasingly common if global warming advances at its current pace. As the 21st century unfolds, architects will doubtlessly be tasked with finding novel solutions to build sustainable desert homes.

In the meantime, a new volume from Phaidon, Living in the Desert, takes a look at cutting-edge architectural endeavors——from Moab, Utah, to Marrakesh, Morocco—that are less survivalist and more desert chic. “The desert’s scale is magnified when trying to grasp it from the single vantage point of a house,” write the book’s editors, “and architecture can flourish when set against this radical backdrop.” It’s no wonder that architects like to flex their muscles in this context; they’re free to use the desert’s barrenness as a sort of test kitchen for grand experiments.

House to Watch the Sunset, Not Vital, 2005, Aladab, Niger. Photo © Not Vital. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Encuentro Guadalupe, Gracia Studio, 2013, Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico. Photo © Luis Garcia. Courtesy of Phaidon.


Some of the more offbeat offerings here weren’t ideated by traditional architects, but rather by contemporary artists who are only passingly concerned with things like long-term functionality or utility. That includes the artist Andrea Zittel, a resident of Joshua Tree, California, whose Wagon Station Encampment (2012) includes a dozen spartan enclosures that, as the book notes, are “equipped with little more than a mattress, a small shelf, some hooks, and a windowed hatch that can be opened up to the sky.” In Palm Springs, California, the artist Doug Aitken built MIRAGE (2017), a structure (mirrored on both its exterior and interior) that’s more of a building-shaped art object than a home. And in Aladab, Niger, the sculptor and conceptual architect Not Vital conceived House to Watch the Sunset (2005), a monochrome structure that boasts three monumental staircases and a series of simple windows through which to enjoy the vivid skies of the day’s end.

But the majority of architecture is, as the book’s title implies, meant to actually be lived in. Minimalism is the preferred style, which is no surprise; the desert’s quiet grace matches well with the understated, with clean lines and angular geometries. Many of the designs consciously nod to the Minimalist aesthetic of Donald Judd—most notably the Mound House designed by Johnston Marklee, located in the late sculptor’s desert home of Marfa, Texas.

One of the most striking buildings featured in Living in the Desert is the Black Desert House (2013) in California’s Yucca Valley, designed by Los Angeles–based Oller & Pejic Architecture. (The house’s former owner, Marc Atlan, played an integral role in the process, as well.) Its low-lying mass is an inky, almost ominous black, making it imposing from the outside; Curbed dubbed it a “forged steel spaceship.” Oller & Pejic noted that “the design grew out of the concept that the project appear as a shadow on the landscape, the negative of the mountain that was dynamited 40 years ago to clear the building pad.” Inside, however, it’s an airy experience, with a wealth of floor-to-ceiling windows letting in light and the stunning surrounding views.

“In the desert, you go from your front door to a world where vistas stretch out almost indefinitely, and your eye can focus on anything from your immediate surrounds to objects 50 miles away,” architects Monica Oller and Tom Pejic described via email. “It’s a very vertiginous feeling—pleasant and invigorating, and frightening at the same time.” Their goal was to create a home that could complement the arid, empty surroundings, to “make the structure seem rooted in its place and not a foreign box dropped into the landscape.”

In the case of Encuentro Guadalupe (2013), a hotel in Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe, the architects of Gracia Studio seem to have leaned into the idea of “boxes dropped into the landscape.” Twenty-two units dot a sloping hillside, sporting modest, platform-style porches from which to read, sip wine, or loudly hail your neighbor. Each is supported by metal stilts that raise them off the ground.

“The main challenge was to design in a way that wouldn’t interfere with the endemic species and fauna of the site,” said Gracia Studio’s Jorge Gracia. The units themselves, he said, were prefabricated, having been partially assembled in an off-site factory before being shipped to the property. Steel—including Corten Steel, which develops a unique texture when exposed to the elements—figured heavily in their design, a preemptive protection against “the constant desert wildfires that hit the area every year.”

The Glass Pavillion, OFIS Arhitekti, 2015, Granada, Spain. Photo © José Navarrete Jiménez. Courtesy of Phaidon.

The more upscale Amangiri Resort (2009) in Canyon Point, Utah, seems like a case study in how luxury can bloom in the most inhospitable places. Aerial views of the site resemble a cluster of nondescript buildings facing off against flat and brutal terrain—an overhead observer could be forgiven for mistaking it for a scientific outpost, rather than a 5-star property where suites can run over $4,000 a night. As Living in the Desert notes, the property’s “beauty lies in the fact that it does not try to overpower the breathtaking view but rather supports it, silently.”

The Glass Pavilion (2015), designed by Slovenian firm OFIS Arhitekti in Granada, Spain, also doesn’t attempt to compete with its mind-blowing surroundings. It’s a compact building with glass windows on all sides, and there’s little in the way of neighbors besides mountains. It was commissioned by Guardian Glass, a Michigan-based company, to act as a sort of showpiece demonstrating its sun-protective coatings. Given the realities of global warming, “the desert can be seen as a perfect experimental field to test design solutions that, in a near future, might be suitable also for…other locations, including cities,” wrote OFIS’s Rok Oman and Špela Videčnik via email.

Such open, all-glass architecture is definitely an anomaly for the desert. A more inward-facing, stark-white aesthetic often prevails, including the Deserti Tascabili DJ Complex (2017) on the Tunisian island of Djerba, created by AutonomeForme of Palermo, Italy. The complex includes both a private house and facilities for an artistic residence program. Subtle design notes help occupants deal with the challenging climate, including terracotta in the roof that operates as “a breathing membrane, fostering natural insulation,” according to the firm’s founder, Marco Scarpinato. The structure is monastic in its simplicity, with all-white walls interrupted sporadically by the narrowest of windows. It’s meant to be a place of respite, with the site providing various zones that Scarpinato thinks of as “pocket deserts,” where visitors can “find peace, and retreat from the convulsive rhythms of modernity.”

The Four Eyes House, 2012, Coachella Valley, CA, USA. Courtesy of Edward Ogosta Architecture, Inc.

The Four Eyes House (2012) in the Coachella Valley possesses an equally monochrome palette, but to wildly different effect. A quartet of sentry tower–like structures surround the modest interior space, with “room for only a bed and a commanding solitary view,” the editors of Living in the Desert write. “In a certain way the home offers freedom,” they add, “for it is not practical.”

Practical or not, its designers—Edward Ogosta Architecture of Los Angeles—weren’t just creating a folly in the middle of the valley’s emptiness. “We gravitate toward low-tech solutions that harness local materials and build on historical techniques,” Ogosta explained via email, discussing this and other related desert projects. “An example would be whitewashed walls with a high thermal mass—such as concrete or rammed earth—which reflect the desert light and delay the passing of outside heat through the wall. Desert cultures have built this way for thousands of years.”

But beyond the chance to harness new materials and time-honored traditions, Ogosta finds something more poetic in desert architecture. “The opportunity to design in the desert is an opportunity to design one’s inner life,” he noted. “Desert landscapes are often environments of pure abstraction, where clarity, emptiness, and silence can simultaneously be a physical and psychological experience.” It’s the more ineffable nuances of the latter that truly make building for the desert a liberating experience. “The light, proportion, space, perception, mood, and atmosphere of the desert can be profoundly amplified through architecture,” Ogosta said, “for maximum emotional and spiritual impact.”

Scott Indrisek