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Apr / May 2014
Shifting Sands

WRITER: Daniel Barney

With several homes already built in California’s Yucca Valley, LA-based architects Monica Oller and Tom Pejic seek to reawaken a love of ‘earthy modernism’ by uniting the clean, direct sensibilities of current architectural trends with the austere brilliance of the Mojave Desert.


The Yucca Valley, an arid and rocky expanse of the Mojave Desert, covers roughly 103 square kilometres of Southern California. Temperatures peak at 42 degrees Celsius in July and dip to 4 degrees in January - the ground freezes in winter and bakes in the summer.

The contrasting extremes of the Yucca Valley invigorate the senses and this dichotomous climate is the perfect setting for the angular black home built by Monica Oller and Tom Pejic of Oller & Pejic Architects, a firm based in Los Angeles. The dwelling is a monument or art piece, carved out of the majestic terrain, bordered by the San Bernardino Mountains to the west and the Joshua Tree National Park to the south.

Situated approximately 1,000 metres above sea level, the home enjoys a 360-degree panorama, unimpeded for hundreds of kilometres. The desert is a broad amphitheatre, where big sky meets red, rocky, undulating horizon.

The highlight of any approach is the crescendo effect created by the sweeping planes of the desert - the façade of the building rises out of the earth as you approach, an angular black form sculpted into bedrock.
“It’s all about the entry progression,” Pejic tells me. “It sits on a promontory by itself, with a large hill backing into it. When you enter, you drive up the hill without knowing where you are going. As you crest the hill, suddenly you see the house and you have this incredible view on the horizon.”

Oller and Pejic are native Californians, both raised on the West Coast. The regional landscape inspired their education and professional process. Both are graduates of the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, today ranked the number one architecture and design school in the United States. The university rests in the country hills like a rider in a saddle, at the midpoint of two historic metropolises, Los Angeles and San Francisco. As Pejic explains, it’s an ideal place to learn about constructed environments.

“The school is in a fairly rural location. There aren’t any cities or really a lot of buildings around there,” he elaborates. “So a lot of our work in school was based on landscapes, things that had to do with landforms and land art. Many projects were centred around how to carve things out of the land.”

Oller and Pejic studied the terrain as they embarked on the Yucca Valley Black Desert project. They observed their location from every angle, mapping it out on paper and then transcribing the markings onto cardboard topographical models. Pejic joked that this is a remnant of their education. As part of the last generation before computer modelling dated the technique, drawing and building by hand is still an important part of their process.

A gaping scar in the landscape, inflicted by a previous developer, posed the main challenge to the endeavour. A large rocky hill had been cut away from the flesh of the property when the site was graded in the 1960s for subdivision. This not only interrupted the geological flow of the house’s setting, it also levelled an entire crest.

Rather than building the seam back up, or trying to repair the damage done, Oller and Pejic took the wound as their starting point. “Addressing it as a scar area, we decided then that our building would kind of grow out of this scar tissue. All areas that were mangled, we would address architecturally,” Pejic says.

The building brief from the client was simple, even cryptic. He wanted his future home to resemble a shadow. The form that the architects concocted appears as a precipice that emerges from beneath the sandy boulders, like a shard uncovered during excavation. The marriage of forms is staggering, each line emanating from a slightly different angle. It embodies a heightened sense of view.
The elevations and textures, cracks and crevices of the natural environment were all transmuted into a source of inspiration. The duo’s study of the site’s surface was painstakingly developed into a unique geometry of place.

“A lot of the formal language arrived from spending time at the site, looking at it and thinking about it. Looking at the rocks and how the lines and cracks, wherever you look, seem to be converging. Your eyes never know where to rest,” Pejic explains. “We thought the same idea would be interesting in conjunction with the house. We could start with all these converging lines and wherever the vista is, we can try to force the perspective.”

When you enter, those vast perspectives aren’t visible. Visitors must meander through the rooms, descending into one space after another, while the ceiling above appears to lift further and further up. Pejic describes the ceiling in these same terms, as an impression that grows by accretion. “It’s a very old fashioned thing that you see a lot in classical styles of architecture. I find it’s more interesting to drop into a space and feel it get larger.”

Once in the main living room, the sheer scope of the site’s natural beauty is apparent. The house plays beautifully on this drama. “It’s all about the entry progression. There are different levels, with ramps and steps, like a kind of spiralling motion. When you enter the living room, it blows up and you get this grand view,” he adds. This is the theatricality of Oller and Pejic’s design.

The structure and its elements intertwine constructed and organic environments, from the glistening black-bottomed pool to the angular courtyard with a single tree pushing through the manicured surface. One seems to study and reflect the other.

As the rocky landscape burns brightly by day, the darkened interior recedes into itself, the massive windows framing the contrasting colours of the vibrantly painted desert outside. Once night falls, the home’s dark surfaces are illuminated by the moon’s glow. From high noon to evening shade, the shape of the house tracks the beautiful light of the desert in its daily procession.

“We wanted to integrate the house totally into the site,” Pejic concludes. They’ve done a sterling job. The home appears carved into the mountain. Less built than discovered. As the dust drifts away in the wind, what was hinted at beneath, is revealed.

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