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.
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.
Over time, wind and weather will erode Desert Breath, a breathtaking land art installation in the eastern Sahara desert. Sited at the meeting of mountains and sea, Desert Breath is a monumental meditation on infinity made by D.A.S.T. Arteam – installation artist Danae Stratou, industrial engineer Alexandra Stratou and architect Stella Constantinides. The team spent two years sculpting a pair of interlocking spirals formed by 178 conical mounds and depressions, precise inversions of positive and negative space radiating from a vessel of water. From above, the work presents a visual image, but on the ground, it becomes a physical experience as visitors walk the spiral pathway. So far, Desert Breath has survived seven years of desert conditions, still “becoming through its slow disintegration, an instrument to measure the passage of time,” D.A.S.T. Arteam writes (for a complementary timepiece, this Shinola wrap watch – intrepidly handcrafted in Detroit – seems like the perfect way to mark such stunning temporality). “The project is rooted in our common desire to work in the desert,” D.A.S.T. continues. “In our mind’s eye the desert was a place where one experiences infinity. We were addressing the desert as a state of mind, a landscape of the mind."
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.
With pillows of fresh snow outside, I’m dreaming of the desert – the light, the heat, the sand, the expanse. For years, Marfa, Texas has topped my travel list, but I have yet to go. Familiar with the rustic edges of ranching, I want to see a world where working the land lives in harmony with land-based artists. El Cosmico seems like the perfect place to site my daydreaming with its hammock grove, outdoor bathing and porches aplenty. Choosing between trailers, tepees or tents sounds like a fun breed of free will to me (made all the more fun in this Free People frock).