The stark beauty of the desert is what inspired Los Angeles architect Robert Stone to build Rosa Muerta, a unique all-black retreat on the edge of California’s Joshua Tree nature reserve. A shaven-headed, tattooed, former punk rocker, he lives here part of the year with his artist wife, Amy Wheeler, and their three-year-old son, Ford; the rest of the time the house is rented out for fashion shoots or to adventurous travelers. Here, Robert explains the idea behind his extraordinary home…
What’s the significance of the name?
Rosa Muerta is a cholo term for the ‘black rose of death’. A lot of things in Southern California are named in Spanish to make them sound more romantic, but they’re meaningless in translation if you speak Spanish – like the forgotten half of the population does. I use that pattern to a different end. It sounds romantic, ‘Rosa Muerta’, but it translates to a darker poetry about the inextricable nature of love and loss. The desert has this whole living/dead real/mirage dichotomy running through everything and the house admits that.
How long did the house take to complete?
Three years. I was out here by myself the whole time; so it took a while.
Was there anything on the plot before you built Rosa Muerta?
Empty desert. There’s still no new landscaping outside of the house. It sits in the middle of the open desert and I am letting the desert grow right back around it.
Why did you choose an all-black scheme?
It isn’t black itself that interests me, but monochrome in general, as it focuses the attention on subtle variations in texture. Black also makes the house about the colors that surround it; at night it disappears and all you see are the stars. I’m currently finishing a house that’s entirely metallic gold and my last design was electric blue. . monochrome makes color either everything or nothing depending on how you are looking at it.
Why have you chosen such minimal furniture and accessories?
All the furniture is built-in – the steps, benches and countertops create a kind of terrain made of concrete. I even carefully removed all of the joints so that it feels continuous. It’s really sexy- it engages your body in a very self-conscious way. People sit on the counters and steps and stand on the benches.
The property merges the indoors and out how was this achieved?
I approached the blurring of indoor/outdoor space in somewhat the opposite way from modernism. I thought I’d build Rosa Muerta like an abandoned house, open to and overgrown by the desert. Do you remember (Los Angeles artist) Sam Durant’s Abandoned Houses? I had a lot of formative experiences in the real world version of Sam Durant’s Abandoned Houses. To me, entropy, culture, and nature can’t be separated from architecture. Some people try, but it leads to boring architecture.
Why did you put mirrors on the ceiling?
I always loved Smithson’s mirror displacements for perhaps the wrong reasons; their simple material poetics. Sand is the main ingredient of glass and so putting mirrors where they reflect the desert floor is this simple and beautiful architectural conundrum. I also like to work with things that are so loaded with cultural baggage, that they defy the formalist trend that architecture has been stuck in for decades. Mirrored ceilings have this connotation of debased sexuality, there is even that Hotel California song that mentions ‘mirrors on the ceiling’ as a trope for some unnamed depravity. I accept all of that baggage, it’s more interesting than pretending architecture is abstract. And I try to make something new out of it. In this case it comes out to be this sublime phenomenon that outstrips language and even sex, like looking out at the ocean.
How does the space change according to the seasons?
The weather here is really mild. It rains about once a year and it’s amazing to see the effect on the surrounding plants. The sun angles were carefully considered so that the pool is in the sunlight in the winter and shaded in the summer. The house is designed to catch the breeze so that it continuously replaces the warmer air that sits below the ceiling. And it uses thermal mass to even out the temperature.
How do people react to the property?
You don’t have to understand all of the personal and local cultural references in my work to be moved by the house. The meaning isn’t located in the object anyway, but it comes out between the object, the viewer, and the culture. So all you have to do to ‘get it’ is to ask yourself questions and see where they lead. Of course, speaking a little Spanish and knowing the 2002 Gucci Fall collection helps.