He’s the James Dean of architecture. But this rebel does have a cause—a razor-sharp one. Erected by his own hands, two rule-bending houses reveal Robert Stone’s purpose: Acido Durado, a dazzling palace and the sinister shrine of Rosa Muerta.
Surrounded by the desert’s austere grandeur, the houses represent the yin and yang, Jekyll and Hyde of Stone’s perspicacity on life.
Both houses have been featured in a plethora of fashion ads and design magazines for their tricked out Latino-meets-Gucci qualities. But Stone seems unaffected, as he bypassed the normal route most architecture graduates take and went out, with no architecture firm, no clients, no commission, and made his castles in the sky a reality on earth.
While digging a ditch for his next house, we managed to make Stone stand still for a few moments to find out how this avant-garde architect makes his way:
Fabrik: You’ve built two houses in Joshua Tree so far, Rosa Muerta and Acido Durado, can you explain which came first and what the different approaches were on each?
Robert Stone: Acido Dorado was designed first, but I held it out of the press and let Rosa Muerta go public for a year before talking about it. I think of Rosa Muerta as being more physical: sex and death predominate. Acido Dorado is more mental: transcendence, hallucination. That is just how I think about them in retrospect. The whole point is to get out beyond language. It may be poetic architecture, but it is ultimately architecture and not poetry.
Fabrik: How did the land inspire your design or did you have these designs in your mind and then looked for a piece of land that fit the structures?
Robert Stone: I have been working for a long time on trying to push long and low structures beyond anything familiar, basically to re-energize the relationship between people, buildings and ground. The idea that architecture cuts into the ground on these open desert plains has been brewing for a long time. But I also went to the desert to make something to engage the culture, as well as the nature of the desert. The meaning of the houses arises from the interaction of all of those things. So it isn’t just the landscape. There is no such thing as nature separate from culture.
Fabrik: Was it important in the end that you decided to build them yourself? Was it because you couldn’t find anyone to do what you had designed or was it a personal challenge to complete the task?
Robert Stone: It helps that I know how to build, it is the “medium” of architecture after all, but I am as academic as an architect as you will find. I spent 20 years filling sketchbooks and reading and writing. I am kind of like the typical paper architect who lives in the world of ideas, except I grew up building houses so when the ideas fell into place, I was ready to go.
Fabrik: How important is the form vs. function principle in your work?
Robert Stone: I don’t believe they are separate. That is really the big break with the architecture of the past century that I am proposing. That form isn’t a stand-alone characteristic that can be considered separate from function or meaning. The current pretension toward “formal abstraction” in architecture is not only dishonest, but also conservative and ultimately boring.
I explored a greatly expanded definition of function in my early sculptural work and form, function and meaning entirely coalesced when I hit my stride.
Fabrik: In the Los Angeles Times Magazine May 2010 article, it mentions your diverse influences such as couture fashion, roadside burials, military hardware and evil corporate modernism. What is the common thread?
Robert Stone: I think there is a strange distrust of anything individualistic or personal in the culture of architecture right now – the corporate model is leading the avant-garde now because the whole “starchitect” trend was led by very thoughtless, whim-based work. So I have to admit with some hesitation, the common thread is simply a reflection of my personality and experiences. It’s very out of style I know – but I have to explain this, because it isn’t the “starchitect” model of practice. My work is not about me at all. I use my own experiences to make work that is about everything else outside of me. I think great architecture has to start with some individual truth rather than the quasi-scientific approach that architecture firms present – but that is just the starting point. If I am honest and open in my search for that truth, then my work becomes much bigger than myself, which is when it gets interesting.
Fabrik: You refer a lot to the Latino culture in interviews about the Joshua Tree houses and it can be seen in your houses with heart symbols, metal roses, etc. Were you raised in that culture? If not, what draws you to it?
Robert Stone: I never get asked that question, thanks for asking that. It’s as simple as this – I want to make meaningful work: deeper, smarter, and more interesting in the long run. You can’t do that if you ignore the time, place, and culture. I live in Southern California, and I’m not a racist, so I don’t ignore nearly 50% of the culture that is Latino. We are all right now making the culture together. I am not even into “multiculturalism” as a topic – I am just into reality.
Fabrik: Your homes are vacation rentals under the name “Pretty Vacant Properties” but you have a clear idea of who can stay there and who cannot. Can you explain your vetting process?
Robert Stone: The idea is just to share my work directly with people who connect to it. I just have these two small houses and not much free time out there. I put a lot of effort into making these places available and so I steer it towards people who make an effort to connect with my work. Those are the people who enjoy it most; so that is whom I want out there. It isn’t at all about exclusivity, but it was always intended to be an underground project that would only be found by people who actually care about new architecture enough to seek it out. That is still mostly the way it works.
Fabrik: Do you think the Joshua Tree houses can be developed into a larger project/duplicated or is that like asking Picasso to paint another Guernica?
Robert Stone: I think they are a larger project, just not by me. Not in the way they look, but in how they work. I hope they open up possibilities in architecture for other people to see potential for more varied approaches and ideas.
Fabrik: What is the most unexpected outcome you’ve encountered since erecting the now iconic Joshua Tree homes?
Robert Stone: It has been interesting to see ideas and aesthetics that I had developed over decades that were so far out of fashion of the accepted academic architecture scene jumping from total obscurity to the covers of magazines all over the world. It was like skipping the architecture scene altogether and then coming back around. I never cared much about wide audiences; it’s the few that really get it that sustain me. But it was strange to watch the disconnected process.
Fabrik: No guts no glory seems to be your design motto. What advice do you give to new architects on following their instincts, taking risks and going beyond prototype?
Robert Stone: It doesn’t feel like it is about guts or glory. The process of developing new ideas unfolds over so many years that by the time anything sees daylight, it is just completely native to me. As for following instincts and going beyond prototype, the difficulty isn’t in following your architectural or artistic voice. The challenge is to have one. Architecture has this history of movements, groups of architects trying to herd together with manifestos and define the era. This never made sense to me so I knew that I had to look deeper and find new ideas on my own, but I worked for 20 years to do that. By the time I had ‘found my voice,’ I didn’t really care if the architecture world understood it as it was truly mine, and it was all I had.
Really, if nothing else, I hope that my work makes it easier for others to make new architecture on their own terms. I think in part it took me so long to find my way because the avant-garde architecture scene in my lifetime has been so conservative, and the issues were so tightly framed academically such that it was—and still is for many—inconceivable that there could be alternative approaches. Watching formalist architecture year after year and reading theory that denied anything subjective, made it really hard to develop my own work. I hope my work points out to others this vast field of unexplored possibilities for architecture that I now find myself in.
Fabrik: What upcoming projects are you working on? Are they based in Joshua Tree?
Robert Stone: I have been based in LA for 15 years. My work is all over Southern California.
The next house is on the edge of a national forest, very different from the desert, and the world has really changed in 5 years. This one is all about re-considering nature in terms of nationalism, religion, ecology and war. I am doing one house at a time and I put everything I have into each one. I think the plan is to build 10-20 houses in my lifetime, one at a time, and make every one the best that I can. I guess I have a waiting list but it is sort of a question of who is ready to go when I emerge from the studio once a year. I have no intention in a professional architecture office with overlapping projects.
Fabrik: If you had one thing to change about the urbanization of Southern California, what would it be?
Robert Stone: If I changed something, it would only reflect my own values. I like that the built environment is like a mirror that reflects societies’ values and compulsions, good and bad. I wouldn’t want it to be better because it wouldn’t contain the truth I look for. As a culture, we get what we deserve in the built environment. That sounds misanthropic, but really I think it is more empathetic to look at our faults than to ignore and deny them. When we are good people we will build good cities; until then, they will be this inextricable mixture of beauty and tragedy.
Fabrik: And bonus superfluous question: If you had one mediocre superpower what would it be?
Robert Stone: Ha, I actually think I have a mediocre superpower already. Sleep is sort of optional for me. I was destined to either be a studio-obsessed architect or a long-distance truck driver.
Words Lanee Lee
Photos by Brad Lansill