Surprising. Sexy. Fearless. Joyous. Timeless. These are the words director Murray Grigor used to describe the quintessential California architect John Lautner in his documentary, “Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner” (2008). Over the course of his half-century career, Lautner created modernist poetry in concrete. Born in Marquette, Michigan to aesthetically-oriented parents of Irish-Austrian descent, Lautner parlayed his early years working under Frank Lloyd Wright into a visionary portfolio in Southern California. While many of his contemporaries experimented with glass and steel, Lautner considered concrete his muse, and developed progressive engineering methods to make the structures he imagined, spaces at once futuristic and organic. His goal: “architecture that has no beginning and no end.” I imagine such transcendence would translate into a transcendent Sunday spent in the resurrected Hotel Lautner in Desert Hot Springs, California, a site he designed in 1947 as part of master plan for a never-realized desert community. Legendary in his approach to light, Lautner conceived of each room as a concrete cove harboring sunshine. Honoring his intentions, the hotel eschews blinds in favor of face masks, to my benefit: I would spend the day (in this silken Maison du Soir tunic) reading by natural light.
Three years ago, Foster Huntington quit his job in New York City, bought a Volkswagen Vanagon, and hit the road. Eighty thousand miles on (and counting), he published a Kickstarter-funded photography journal, “Home Is Where You Park It,” chronicling the kindred characters he met out west, who too transformed axels into abodes (Huntington’s initial sojourn has since morphed into a way of life). I’m inspired by these nomad narratives, by the adventure, the asceticism. By the 1970s Dodge Sportsman, canary red no less, parked amid Central Baja’s sea of subcompacts and pickups. By the Honda Civic transformed into a polyhedron sleeper. By the family of five’s second home on wheels: a camping tent strapped to the top of a van, surf boards propped outside. Only classic essentials would come with me on my driveabout, like these Chucks.
Log cabins and cowboy hats are part of the visual vernacular in Wyoming, my interest in them diluted by their ubiquity. This Joshua Tree installation arrests my ambivalence: Phillip K. Smith III modified a 70-year-old cabin with mirrors and LED lighting to create the illusion of transparency, particularly profound in the arid expanse of scrub brush and desert sand (a profundity referenced in the installation’s name, Lucid Stead). This organza frock channels the installation’s colorful translucence and calm amid extremes. Even though Lucid Stead is no longer open to the public, Smith is busy working on other ambitious artworks: this Friday at Coachella, he unveils Reflection Field, a more elaborate light installation involving five massive, mirrored volumes of light. Computerized color progressions will make the sculptures disappear into their dramatic surrounds. Lucky Coachellians.
In plotting my return to urban life, I’m scouting escape routes: accessible adventures doable over weekends. Steep Revine Cabins belie their proximity to the Bay Area – only an hour’s drive north – by offering seaside seclusion in Mount Tamalpais State Park (only reserved guests know the gate code). I love camping sans tents; each of the 10 cabins offer a table, benches, sleeping platforms (akin to two doubles), a countertop, closet and – best of all – wood-burning stove (all for $100 a night). Crashing surf, crackling fire, bundling up in big sweaters as the sun falls away: perfect weekend wilderness.
In college, I wrote my senior thesis – a collection of interrelated short stories – on self-taught/outsider/naïve artists (all those slashes attest to this spectral category of creativity). Such artists share an irrepressible drive to visually express themselves, an instinct epitomized by Leonard Knight. A Vermont native, Knight had been a welder, handyman, auto body mechanic, guitar teacher and painter before he decamped to Slab City, a squatters’ colony on a former military base several hours east of LA. In this lawless land, he built a three-story monolith to his faith, Salvation Mountain – a terraced rainbow made of adobe, straw and umpteen gallons of paint, cloaked in Bible verses and crowned with a cross. He shared his creation with others; visitors summit Salvation by following a golden path. Knight died last month at age 82. Without him, his mountain may languish; the site requires constant maintenance to combat the harsh conditions of the Colorado Desert. Can words help save Salvation Mountain? In 2002, California Senator Barbara Boxer described it as “a unique and visionary sculpture… a national treasure... profoundly strange and beautifully accessible.” I want to go (in this omniscient dress) and add my voice to its preservation.
After hermitting most of the winter, I look for ways to transition outward, away from quiet living into the more boisterous vibe of summer. This Dome in the Desert seems like the perfect launch pad for a mellow/loud hybrid, for exploring by day and nesting by night. Sitting only miles away from the town of Joshua Tree and the national park, the dome’s interior and exterior amenities feel like a bespoke fit for me: inside, there’s a wood burning stove, board games and books, and a collection of coffee makers; outside, there’s 800,000 acres of cactus-speckled wilderness, with trails to hike and rocks to scramble. I picture coming home at night, mind full from peak climbing and petroglyph spotting, and cooking a big fresh meal in these wacky jeans, a palimpsest of patterns, like the desert itself.
It’s been years since I climbed a tree – a confession that, once made, must be remedied. This NoCal treehouse – wedged within a mighty eucalyptus tree – beckons the all-too grounded (me). Weathered stairs lead three stories up to a bi-level cabin bracketed by bark. Neighbors include horses, a barn beloved by the Grateful Dead, and a cozy wine-country town. But I would leave all that below and nest – wrapped in flannel, with a book or New Yorkers, falling in and out of naps, writing some, sans cellular. Suspended.