Between heaven and earth - Architecture - Domus
Between heaven and earth
 

Between heaven and earth

In the Mojave Desert, artifice and nature come together in the design of three totemic pavilions designed by Arata Isozaki for his long-time friend Jerry Sohn.

 

Architecture / Peter Zellner

This article was published in Domus 947, May 2011

Thirty years ago Arata Isozaki designed a house and artist's studio on a narrow alley lot less than 500 metres from the Pacific Ocean in Venice Beach, California. The slender structure was made for a friend of the architect's named Jerry Sohn, an LA art collector. It was later sold to musician Eric Clapton. To this day Isozaki's elegant house still manages to capture some of Southern California's idiosyncratic qualities, in particular the relationship of cultural activities (art, architecture and music for instance) to the natural landscape.

The client and architect stayed friends, exchanging correspondence over two decades and visiting each other intermittently in Japan or California. Years passed and Sohn came to acquire a property in the desert about two and a half hours southeast of Los Angeles. Surrounded by the benthic beauty of an ancient but now dry sea floor, dramatic rock formations, cactuses, reddish soil, Joshua trees and sagebrush, the property sits 1,500 metres above sea level in the High Mojave Desert. It is about 15 kilometres from Joshua Tree National Park and 50 kilometres northeast of Palm Springs, which is typically 5 to 7 degrees Celsius hotter on any given day than the high desert. During the day the temperatures in the Mojave can soar to 38 degrees Celsius, but drop at night to 1 or 2 degrees Celsius.

The three totems,
respectively dedicated to
summer, spring/autumn and
winter, are set along a path
that stretches away from
the house in the style of a
western. This is where Jerry
Sohn lives when he comes
to visit from Los Angeles.

The three totems, respectively dedicated to summer, spring/autumn and winter, are set along a path that stretches away from the house in the style of a western. This is where Jerry Sohn lives when he comes to visit from Los Angeles.

Originally developed as a ranch in the 1920s and '30s, the property includes a small cabin that was owned for a time by the LA artist Ed Ruscha who painted on its interior walls. The cabin and land are totally off the grid, meaning water is sourced from a well, sewage, electricity and phone services are sparse to non-existent, and solar- or gas-powered lighting and cooking are the standard not the exception. The nearest "urban setting" is a small village called Pioneertown that was built in 1946 by Gene Autry and Roy Rogers as part of a western movie set.

The primary sensation of being on the property is an impression of its remoteness, isolation, wildness and sublimity. Living on the site on a regular basis, as Sohn and his family do two or three times a month when not in LA, promotes a sort of deep hermeticism. Spending time wandering among the desert's quite large rock formations, across washed-out creek beds and over the site's mineralogical plains brings one quickly to an understanding of Southern Califonia's fragility. Despite the site's proximity to civilisation, one also gets a very immediate sense that our urban or cultural identities rest on the most tenuous of hypotheses supported by the most brittle of infrastructures.

The LA art collector
Jerry Sohn and his family
admire the Mojave Desert
relaxing on the reinforced
concrete platform of the
summer pavilion.

The LA art collector Jerry Sohn and his family admire the Mojave Desert relaxing on the reinforced concrete platform of the summer pavilion.

On a trip to California in the 1990s, Isozaki visited the site with his friend Sohn and slept outdoors one night. His intuition, as he has noted elsewhere, was that the desert's architecture has only the sky as its ceiling and the ground as its floor. On his next visit to the property, the client asked the architect to make an outdoor bedroom so that Sohn and his family could have a place where they could sleep under the stars and the moon, but away from snakes and other wildlife; a place to appreciate seasonal changes and stay cool on a hot summer's night. The architect suggested the idea of nature itself as an interior, and instead proposed to his client that they make three outdoor bedrooms, not one. After some sketching and long-distance discussions, the architect and the client agreed to build three different bedrooms for four different seasons on three different areas of the property.

 
Despite the site’s proximity to civilisation, one also gets a very immediate sense that our urban or cultural identities rest on the most tenuous of hypotheses supported by the most brittle of infrastructures.
 
Artworks are dotted around
Jerry Sohn’s property. For
example, the small cabin
once belonged to Ed Ruscha,
who turned the interior walls
into paintings. Below, the
installation titled Circle of
Japanese Fishing Floats by
Richard Long.

Artworks are dotted around Jerry Sohn’s property. For example, the small cabin once belonged to Ed Ruscha, who turned the interior walls into paintings. Below, the installation titled Circle of Japanese Fishing Floats by Richard Long.

The first "bedroom" one encounters walking away from the main cabin is the winter bedroom—a simple or seemingly simple cube. The winter bedroom is the most complete architectural exercise of the three, being a fully enclosed concrete and glass cube measuring nine by nine by nine feet with a six-foot-square glass panel inset on the top plane as part of the ceiling. Here the architect had intended to include a bed and storage unit designed by Man Ray, but the client decided to forego any interior furniture preferring to sleep directly on the structure's concrete floor, which, incidentally, remains surprisingly warm on the coldest nights, radiating the sun's heat trapped in the structure over the course of a day. On one interior wall the British artist Jeremy Dickinson has painted an image of a rusted toy found on the property, a small fire truck abandoned no doubt years ago by a child and preserved by the desert. Sleeping in the unit, detached from civilisation but somehow partially disconnected from immediately or directly experiencing nature, one feels something like a kinship with the architecture of the bedroom, as if body and structure were fused like a suit and nature could be partially filtered and partially cultured.

According to Isozaki,
on the summer pavilion “the entire night sky
becomes the ceiling”.

According to Isozaki, on the summer pavilion “the entire night sky becomes the ceiling”.

The next bedroom is the summer bedroom, a nine by nine foot concrete deck mounted on a low, stepped vertical concrete wall. Like the other bedrooms it is made out of three-inch board-formed concrete, its mass sculpturally defined by an exacting formation—its architectural lines embedded in form, an unadulterated translation of two into three dimensions. This bedroom, if it may even be called that, is a totem; almost a sculpture; almost a pure art act; both ancient and futuristic simultaneously. And yet beyond its sculptural qualities it is absolutely architectural, precise in its re-imagining how the body could inhabit the space between the heavens and the earth. It is just a platform, and at the same time it is everything architecture could or should aspire to achieve. That is to say, it arrives at a perfect marriage of formal intent and functional performance— nothing gained, nothing lost; both more architecture and less architecture than one needs at the same time.

The winter pavilion is
apparently the most complex
of the three structures:
a concrete enclosure whose
ceiling is pierced with a
glazed skylight. Whoever
sleeps in this pavilion can
therefore look up and enjoy
the constellations while
immersed in the total night
of the desert.

The winter pavilion is apparently the most complex of the three structures: a concrete enclosure whose ceiling is pierced with a glazed skylight. Whoever sleeps in this pavilion can therefore look up and enjoy the constellations while immersed in the total night of the desert.

The last bedroom one reaches, situated at the lowest point formed by the triangle between the three structures, is the fall and spring bedroom. This structure hovers, literally, between an architecture defined by enclosure and screening (the winter bedroom) and an architecture of openness and minimal form (the summer bedroom). The fall and spring bedroom, like its siblings, is also constructed of board-formed concrete. However, its architectural form is the most cultured, the most mannered. It is a floor folded into a vertical wall and then gently rolled into a barrel vault that rests on another wall, this one being perpendicular to the first wall. Between the two walls, three concrete prisms, two small cubic steps and a larger rectangular concrete box define a place to sleep or observe the vast desert valley beyond Sohn's property. On the rear of the structure, the New York artist Lawrence Weiner has carefully applied a text painting to the longer exterior wall. It reads "OBSCURED HORIZON" in yellow upper-case stencil letters, outlined in red-orange and framed by an oblong red-yellow box. On either side of the box, the artist has added two identical cursive loops, like lower-case "e"s or two waves curling over and back onto themselves. As a visual summation or diagram of the structure, they could be no clearer: they perfectly capture how the architect has folded and then rolled the desert floor onto itself, over the sky and then back to the earth, while in the process partially concealing the earth's own horizon.

The spring/autumn pavilion.

The spring/autumn pavilion.

Isozaki has said elsewhere that the Japanese tea house creates nature artificially, and therefore it is not nature itself. The opposite theory, he has suggested, is to consider nature as an artificial form. In the Mojave Desert, the architect's subtle yet stable interventions in a primordial landscape propose not only that we bear witness to the delicacy of our relationship with our planet, but also to the resoluteness required of any structure that can survive the desert and indeed marry itself to such a landscape.

According to Arata Isozaki,
in this project “the ceiling
is the sky, the surrounding
mountain range and rocks
are the walls and partitions,
and the majority of the floor
is the desert. It only consists
of expanding the notion of the
house towards nature itself,
the surrounding environment”.

According to Arata Isozaki, in this project “the ceiling is the sky, the surrounding mountain range and rocks are the walls and partitions, and the majority of the floor is the desert. It only consists of expanding the notion of the house towards nature itself, the surrounding environment”.

In creating a state of being that is neither primitive nor overreaching in any false attempts to seek a new paradise, Isozaki has found a perfect balance between artifice or culture and nature. His idiosyncratic structures, designed for a friend and an exceptional client, propose the tightest of dances between the dissolution of culture into nature and the conscription of nature itself as part of our architectural cosmos. This seems very Californian. The collection of these three outdoor bedrooms is doubtlessly one of the most powerful acts of architecture I have ever encountered, a testament to Isozaki's deep sense of self-control as an architect, as well as his daring ambition to imagine that architecture could claim the sky and the horizon as its domain.
Peter Zellner, Architect and professor at Southern California Institute of Architecture

Design architect: Arata Isozaki and Associates
Design collaborator: Yuko Oka
Structural engineering: Lindon Schultz (Summer, Spring/Autumn), Parker Resnick (Winter)
Building contractor: Jason Scharch and Moses Guzman
Construction supervision: Jerry Sohn
Art painted on concrete: Lawrence Weiner "OBSCURED HORIZON" (Spring/Autumn), Jeremy Dickinson "Nylint Truck" (Winter)
Client: Jerry and Eba Sohn

The critic in the desert
 

The critic in the desert

Deserti americani, Reyner Banham, Einaudi, Torino 2007 (pp. 212, € 19,00)

Thanks to his very lucid eye, Banham has managed in this book to correct some assumptions on the American desert and to explode some of its most persistent myths. Critical of those who seek to “rediscover themselves” in it, he is equally severe with regard to an affected eco-friendliness that seeks to embalm the desert.

 

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