About once every decade, a display of colorful wildflowers erupts across the California desert. Called a “superbloom,” this cornucopia of red, orange and yellow occurs on the rare occasion when circumstances–rain, sun and cloud–align perfectly. “These phenomenal moments of beauty that happen in extreme environments bring a heightened awareness of the fragility, but also the potential, of the desert,” says James Lord, founding partner of San Francisco-based landscape architecture and urban design practice Surfacedesign Inc. Along with the practice’s co-founder Roderick Wyllie, Lord is leading a studio at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design named after this floral spectacle. The seemingly miraculous appearance of flowers in a climate that people tend to think of as barren and lifeless is an example of what can flourish in the harsh climate of the desert if conditions are just right.
Similarly, Lord and Wyllie argue, design is most successful when it’s perfectly suited to its context, whether that’s a densely populated inner-city neighborhood, the rolling countryside or, in this case, the desert. Far from being a dull and monolithic environment, Lord explains, the desert is actually ever-changing and therefore provides a unique opportunity for architectural experimentation, one that lends itself to free-thinking. “It seems completely static, but when you get there, you understand its subtlety–that it’s actually a super-dynamic landscape and even more so when impulses like rain, fire or wind affect it. Being thrown into an exotic place like the desert, where survival is key, you have to use your wits to make it work.”
The implications of designing for this specific environment are also far-reaching: The desert presents a case study in how to design for and live in increasingly harsh conditions. “In California, we’ve had massive wildfires and suffered from serious droughts in recent years, and it’s getting worse,” Lord says. “So maybe we should be looking at the communities that already live in extreme environments and think about how they are handling this new world.”
He points to a series of precedents that demonstrate the range of responses that the desert can elicit. Among them is Italian architect Paolo Soleri’s experimental utopian community Arcosanti in Arizona, which proposes sustainable ways to exist in the desert through “archology”–a combination of architecture and ecology–including concrete panels that blend in with the sand and the orientation of buildings so that they capture light and heat in winter but are sheltered from them in the summer. Lord and Wyllie also cite as examples the monumental artworks that comment directly on their surroundings–for example, French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s sculptures in The Tarot Garden in Tuscany; Michael Heizer’s ongoing City project of earth, rocks, sand and concrete in Nevada; James Turrell’s Roden Crater within a volcanic cinder cone in Arizona; and Harvey Fite’s Opus 40 sculpture park in a quarry in New York state, in which all the works were made out of materials found on site.
Alongside these, Lord and Wyllie presented students in the Superbloom studio with a more speculative reference point: Italian design practice Superstudio’s 1969 conceptual architecture work Continuous Monument: An Architectural Model for Total Urbanization, a technological and infrastructural grid that everyone would be able to plug into around the world, forming the basis of our future lifestyle–an idea that seems eerily prescient today. “It was fascinating for the students that these visionary utopian ideas have the potential to become a reality,” Lord says. “Part of the challenge is for students to come up with their own utopian environments and think of how you could make it happen and be relevant beyond this time.”
Students were asked to respond to three different contexts. The first, an untouched patch of land, was an exercise in basic survival and a direct response to the need to create shelter from the elements and confront the desert’s vast openness. The second assignment was to respond to one of a series of sites that had already been touched in some way by human development: the small, one-strip town of 29 Palms; the Joshua Tree National Park; and Desert Queen Mine, an old gold mine. The final project was to design a series of homes for women artists within an existing desert community, where people live outside of mainstream society and where “characters express themselves using whatever means they have available.”
The responses were varied. One student considered a failing mall-like development in 29 Palms, and proposed carving it up into a series of gardens and courtyards. “It abstracted moments within the desert in ways that heightened your awareness and captured its emotive qualities: its danger, beauty or disorienting quality,” Lord says. A design for a residential scheme was inspired by the notion of the mirrored surface of the Air Stream, the enabler of so many desert adventures; a canopy reflected the sky and ground, framing views around it while also disappearing into the landscape. Another student was fascinated by a small local rodent called the Kangaroo Rat and its strategy for water preservation. “Her pavilion was a series of objects that go under and above ground to collect water for long-term survival.”
What was striking was the variety of responses to this one context, a fact that seems to provide a glimmer of optimism in the face of the bleak prospects facing humanity in the near future. “Historically, many desert interventions have been more about bravado and pushing your vision forward at all costs, almost rejecting the landscape that the project was set within,” he says. He contrasts the male-dominated view of the world–and architecture–that prevailed during the 1960s and 70s, as well as the heavily engineered solutions that the modernist movement proposed, to the more plural, subtle and inclusive notions of cultural value that are taking hold today.
“All the different approaches to this situation highlight the fact that there is no one way to fix all of our current problems or to address how we live in extreme environments. Rather, there are multiple solutions that combine together and point at each other and make something new, while showing respect for the poetry of place-making.”