Some call it the “armadillo”; others compare it to a sea creature or the fossilised form of a dinosaur’s back. Whatever your view, there’s certainly an element of biomorphic drama in architect Kendrick Bangs Kellogg’s extraordinary High Desert House – home to novelist Kristopher Dukes and her husband Matt Jacobson, head of market and culture development at Facebook.
The house is located in the Joshua Tree National Park in California and appears to emerge from the remote and rocky desert landscape. “Kellogg was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and the house has that feeling of Wright’s ideal of being organic,” says Dukes. “It doesn’t sit on the hill but is part of it. There are boulders throughout the interior and the sides of the hill are integrated into the master bedroom walls. But those are the only true walls in the home – the rest of the space is sheltered by concrete slabs with glass in between, so the light shifting throughout the day is like a visual poem.”
High Desert House was originally commissioned as a home for artist Bev Doolittle and her husband Jay, who had long admired Kellogg’s organic, site-specific architecture. They found an “unconventional” location in the national park and drilled 26 cast-concrete columns into the rock to support a series of overlapping concrete canopies or plates, recalling the exoskeletons of small animals such as armadillos. “The idea was that the house would be settled in the landscape like it was crouching on the rocks – rather like a sleeping animal,” Kellogg explains.
The atmosphere inside the house falls somewhere between that of a cave and a church and was envisaged by artist and interior designer John Vugrin, who spent 20 years working with Kellogg on the project, which was completed in 2014. In light of the unique character of the house, every integrated element and piece of bespoke furniture was crafted by hand.
When the Doolittles decided to move on, Dukes and Jacobson stepped in – their enthusiasm for contemporary architecture evident in their modernist Los Angeles residence, which was designed by their friend, the late architect Ray Kappe. On a trip with Kappe and his wife Sally, the pair fell in love with High Desert House. “We decided to take a detour on the way home to see the house – we’re architecture nerds and were curious,” says Dukes. “None of us could believe the level of craftsmanship when we found the property. Ray, who was a very mellow person, told my husband then and there, ‘You have to get this house.’”
American architect Wallace Cunningham views each project as a unique response to site and setting. But within his work there is a constant sculptural thread – his houses have fluid lines, curving pools and roof canopies that connect, visually and physically, with the landscape, sea and sky.
One of the most dramatic expressions of his philosophy is The Crescent House in Encinitas, north of San Diego, California – a two-storey home owned by a property developer and his family in an elevated spot overlooking the coastline. The 7,500sq ft house, completed in 2014, has floor-to-ceiling windows in the main living spaces on the upper floor, capturing mesmerising views over the water, while a series of balconies and terraces reinforce the sense of connection to the outdoors.
The form of the crescent moon was a key inspiration in the design, particularly within the indoor-outdoor courtyard. “We wanted to capture as much of these views as possible from the main spaces but also hide the surrounding structures so the family would feel as though they were home alone,” says Cunningham. “We created a path of discovery through the house, with the courtyard being a counterpoint between the circular and triangular elements of the building.”
One end of the courtyard is surrounded by a crescent-shaped infinity pool with views across the beach, while at the other a ramp spirals its way up to the main rooms of the house. The water in the pool reflects the sky above, while its shape – along with that of the curving terrace and ramp – softens the more linear profiles.
Australian architect Charles Wright’s Stamp House reveals his enthusiasm for strikingly unorthodox, gravity-defying buildings – a passion that was shared by midcentury masters such as John Lautner and Eero Saarinen. Both dynamic and sculptural, this property would be extraordinary anywhere in the world, yet seems even more dramatic in the context of rural Queensland, where it sits in 70 acres of tropical landscape within sight of the Daintree Mountains.
Wright has designed a true original. The house, which was completed in 2013, “floats” on an artificial lake, accessed by a bridge that leads into the heart of a family home. Here, an open courtyard has a swimming pool at its centre, while the communal living spaces around it are roofed but partly open-sided, responding to the tropical climate and allowing air to circulate. The bedrooms and “dens” of the home are contained within six pods that rise from the main body of the house and form projecting wings that cantilever over the lake. Viewed from the outside, the overall impression is of an interstellar spacecraft hovering above the water, ready to launch itself into the sky – which is only heightened when the design is seen from above.
But this home is also very much grounded in the tropical landscape and was built to cope with the tropical storms that are prevalent in the region – the chunky cantilevered concrete volumes are not only strong enough to withstand these cyclones but also prevent water from getting in during any accompanying floods. To enhance the sense of connection with the environment, moreover, particular vistas and viewpoints are captured by balconies at the end of each of these “levitating” wings.
There are personal touches throughout the house that respond to the building having been commissioned as a family bolthole for a renowned stamp dealer; from the unusual shape of the pool, which was based on the outline of the first aboriginal face to feature on an Australian stamp in 1955, commonly known as “One Pound Jimmy”, to the abstract pattern of indentations on the external concrete surfaces of the pods that echo the perforations on a printed sheet of stamps.
Wright’s Stamp House has not only become a calling card for his practice, but has helped define a futuristic new strand of Asian Pacific architecture.
Casa H in Chile by architect Felipe Assadi has the look and feel of a powerful piece of land art, perched high upon a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Zapallar in the Valparaíso region. Zapallar itself is a traditional resort town. Casa H, completed in 2018, is anything but conventional, taking the form of a vast beam laid across the hill that runs parallel to the coastline.
The house was commissioned by a couple, both doctors, as a retreat where they could spend time with their children and grandchildren. The linear profile of the concrete-framed building is created by two giant neo-brutalist slabs: the base is placed upon the natural contours of the landscape, with a parallel finned roof above. The design plays on the idea of levitation. A glass-fronted, open-plan living space is sandwiched between the two beams, creating the illusion that the roof is floating over it, while the interior, in turn, feels like it is suspended over the landscape.
The juxtaposition of strong geometric lines within a natural setting lends the house its almost surreal sense of theatre. “The architecture we do always has a strong sense of structure,” says Assadi. “We prefer to inhabit a ‘structure’ rather than structuring a room or a space.” In this case, the structure is inhabited by a master suite at one end of the house and a sheltered veranda at the other, while a balcony wraps around the front of the building. Additional family bedrooms are tucked into a lower level, pushed into the hillside for privacy. A third, smaller concrete platform juts out from the main house, accommodating a plunge pool that cantilevers over the undulating terrain – adding to the sense of a building that skirts the border between a home and an art installation.
Chilean architect Smiljan Radic designed London’s pod-like Serpentine Gallery Pavilion of 2014, and his own home in Chile is just as captivating. The black, sculpted house he built in 2012, situated in woodland close to the foothills of the Andes, near Vilches, is officially called House for the Poem of the Right Angle – named after a book by Le Corbusier, whose work was a key influence upon the interior. The shape of the picoroco, a barnacle that attaches itself to rocks off the Chilean coast, was another inspiration. “The references for the exterior and the interior space came together at the same time,” says Radic. “The house is a dark spot in the forest, a shadow that doesn’t harm the landscape and is positioned next to a stone garden that provides a certain order in this lonely setting. But perhaps the most important thing is the dialogue that the house establishes with the landscape, which is a conversation between equals.”
Radic’s home is certainly a beautiful and arresting surprise among the trees. Three glass-capped periscopes emerge from the low-slung concrete building, framing views of branches and sky. They echo the organic shape of the picorocos but also the “light cannons” or solar tubes – openings cut in the ceiling to deliver light into a dark interior – developed by Le Corbusier.
The woods are invited into the house itself through a central courtyard, populated by four trees, around which the living spaces revolve. The courtyard serves as another light well, framing a larger view of the canopy above.