Robert Stone: The Anarchitect
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 Dorado, 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:
You’ve done two Joshua tree houses so far, Rosa Muerta and Acido Durado, can explain which came first and what the different approaches were on each?
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. . . really the whole point is to get am out beyond language . It may be poetic architecture but it is ultimately architecture and not poetry.
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?
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- and so the idea that architecture that 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 that would 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.
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?
It helps that I know how to build, it is the “medium” of architecture after all, but I am as academic 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 that grew up building houses so when the ideas fell into place I was ready to go.
How important is the form vs function principle in your work?
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 conservative and ultimately boring.
I explored a much expanded definition of function in my early sculptural work and form, function and meaning entirely coalesced when I hit my stride.
In an LA article, they mention your diverse influences such as Couture fashion, road-side burials, military hardware and evil corporate modernism. What is the common thread?
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 because the whole “starchitect” trend was led by very un-thoughtful whim-based work. So I have to admit with some hesitation that the common thread among those things that you list is “me- and my 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 can only be made by individuals– but I hope that by being honest and open my work can rise above it’s humble origins within myself as an individual.
You refer a lot to the Latina culture in articles 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?
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 the 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.
Your homes are vacation rentals under the name “Pretty Vacant Rentals” but you have a clear idea of who can stay there and who cannot. Can you explain your vetting process and why?
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 toward people who make an effort to connect with my work- those are the people who enjoy it most so that’s who 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.
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?
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 who see potential for more varied approaches and ideas.
What is the most unexpected outcome you’ve encountered since erecting the now iconic Joshua Tree homes?
It has been interesting to see ideas and aesthetics that I had developed over decades – that were so far out of the “style” of the accepted academic architecture scene- jump from total obscurity to the covers of magazines all over the world. . . kind of skipping the architecture scene altogether and then coming back around. I never cared much about wide audiences, it’s the 1% that really gets it who sustain me, but it was strange to watch the disconnected process.
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?
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, it is actually having 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- it was truly mine.
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. Looking at year after year of formalist architecture and reading theory that denied anything subjective. . it made it really hard to develop my own work. I hope my work points out to others his vast field of unexplored possibilities for architecture that I now find myself in.
What upcoming projects are you working on? Are they based in Joshua Tree?
No, 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, and 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 to set up any kind professional architecture office with overlapping projects.
If you had one thing to change about the urbanization of Southern California, what would it be?
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. . . then it wouldn’t contain the truth that I look for. We as a culture 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.
And bonus fun question: If you had one mediocre superpower (warming coffee w your pinky for example) what would it be?
Ha, I think I actually have a mediocre superpower- sleep is sort of optional for me. . . I was destined to either be a studio-obsessed architect or a long-distance truck driver.