Castles in the Sand: The Art of Desert Architecture

This article was originally published on Christie’s International Real Estate’s blog Luxury Defined. 


The desert has not always been the ideal habitat in which to set up home. For millennia, its dwellers were nomadic, responding to extremes of the climate and topology with constant mobility, making the most of their changing surroundings. But the desert is also spectacular, and as architectural technology has evolved, the ability to settle in these extreme environments has increased across the globe.


Although the vast majority of desert housing is prosaic, modern architecture was reinvigorated by the challenge of building in arid landscapes. Many of the most iconic examples of desert Modernism were practically off the grid when they were built, occupying pristine plots in communities such as Scottsdale, Arizona, or Palm Springs, California.



Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, for example, built in 1946, was once a gateway to open land, not set amid countless overgenerous vacation homes in an upscale suburb. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Harold Price, Sr House, built in 1955 in Scottsdale, just a few miles from Wright’s winter home and studio complex, Taliesin West, is another fine example of mid-century desert design, aesthetically inspired by its surroundings but also created as a retreat from the conditions and climate. It too stood alone against the wilderness, self-sufficient and fortress-like on the dirt roads that predate the highways and suburban mansions that now litter the surrounding hills.


It’s this desire to get away, to become one with nature, which still drives architects to build in the desert; the landscape is not intended to be conquered but tamed. Creature comforts are hardly denied, but nor are the essential qualities of the land, as architects accommodate delicate ecosystems and are less demanding in terms of energy and materials. One thing that has remained constant is the mythology of the desert-dwelling, the frequent absence of a formal garden to mediate between house and landscape, and the emphasis on light, space, and solitude.


Transitional Space


In Reno, Nevada, OPA’s new home for a pair of art dealers sits in the hinterland between the city’s suburbs and the wilderness. “They desired a house that would reflect the contemporary moment yet be explicit of the West,” says the firm’s principal, Luke Ogrydziak. The site had stunning views but little in the way of character, a “generic, placeless idea of mainstream America,” as he puts it.



The resulting Shapeshifter house acts as a transition point. “The American desert has a history of being understood as a place of lack, emptiness, or otherness,” Ogrydziak says. “Framed as a barren wasteland, a kind of ‘no place,’ it has been appointed the perfect test site, a place for all genres of experimentation—military, scientific, and social.” Shapeshifter, with its faceted external walls and mix of covered inside and outside space, seems to blend into the landscape. “The two are inextricable: another desert mirage,” Ogrydziak adds.


DUST’s Mountain Retreat in Tucson, Arizona, is a bit closer to the Platonic ideal of what a contemporary desert home should be. Perched on the edge of the Saguaro National Park, this Sonoran home is shaped entirely by its spectacular environment, with architectural forms evoking the primal beauty of rock formations, huge opening panes of glass, exterior corridors for circulation, and a rooftop terrace for stargazing in the dark skies. “We feel that it is our responsibility to respond to any environment in which we will build, especially a desert environment, with great sensitivity and care,” says DUST’s Cade Hayes.


Informed by Site and Place


Hayes and his colleagues were meticulous in their approach. “We considered macro and microclimate issues, air movement, rain, solar radiation, geologic makeup, animal corridors…” he says, “then we put all of this data and knowledge with the clients’ wishes and desires and sprinkled in some commonsense passive design strategies. The design is born out of a response to all of these factors, but it always comes back to site and place.” Rammed-earth construction gives weight and protection from the climate, while specific client requests—a music studio, for example—are combined with essential functional features such as the water collection system.



Oller & Pejic’s Black Desert House is located in the Yucca Valley on the edge of the Mojave Desert in California. This is a true wilderness, a place unchanged for millennia, yet located a few hours from Los Angeles—some of the densest areas of human habitation on the planet. Modest in scale, the house took a year to plan due to the complex site location and topography.


“The site was previously developed, so the goal was to cover or organize the already scarred areas and not touch any of the natural areas,” partner Tom Pejic explains. “The materials were chosen for cost constraints and for a neutral palette that wouldn’t compete with the natural materials on the site. Each section of the house is on a different level, so the sensation of moving through the house mimics the act of scampering around boulders outside.”



Topography also plays a major role in Wendell Burnette Architects’ Hidden Valley House, located in Cave Creek, Arizona. A shallow sloping site creates a natural spot for a home. A monumental, dolmen-like canopy roof shades the interior, harvests water and energy, and conceals the mechanical systems needed to run the home. The architects describe it as a sort of “thick cave,” blurring inside and outside in places, while still reasserting the building’s primacy over nature.


Africa and South America


The arid American wilderness is a state of mind as much as a place. Elsewhere in the world, there is a longer tradition of desert building, and the functional simplicity of traditional techniques dovetails with a modern approach.



In Morocco, Studio KO’s Villa K also takes its texture and hue from the land, fusing contemporary forms with the appearance of vernacular buildings. Barclay & Crousse’s C3 House in Lima, meanwhile, is the latest in the studio’s collection of villas, cultural buildings, and hospitality spaces built in the spectacular landscapes of Peru. It sits above the Pacific coastline, with terraced levels and rich, earthy quality to the monumental external walls.


The desert is rugged but also delicate, as DUST’s Cade Hayes points out, an ecosystem that needs a light touch. Such locations might be few and far between, but for those seeking the ultimate retreat, designing for this wilderness will always mean going the extra mile.