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Stagecraft and Skylight: The Desert Hot Springs Motel
by Zach Mortice, Associate Editor
From afar, the Desert Hot Springs Motel doesn’t look like much. Depending on the angle it’s approached from, it’s either a concrete walled-bunker that could be a secret military facility with curiously orange painted steel frames peeking over its edges, or a collection of shoebox bungalows with alternating parking spaces. The motel is composed of three rectangular, parallel units, with one more unit running perpendicular to the others on their north side. The 2000-square-foot motel is walled in by 8-foot saw-toothed concrete walls on three sides, which protects the property from the harsh and dry desert winds that come off the nearby mountains, as well as direct sunlight. These gray and imposing walls also enclose desert gardens and patios for cacti and succulents. The other exterior walls are clad in redwood, and steel structural frames slant over the patios, living area, and car parks, holding up a picture frame to the stark desert landscape.
This unassuming disregard for visual spectacle disappears when visitors enter the motel units.
The interior walls are made of glass along an entire side, and look out to the desert gardens and patios—a transparent shell within an opaque shell. A long skylight on the side of the units opposite the patios lets in more daylight, and even the concrete walls duck down enough to make an afternoon cocktail break perfectly saturated in natural light. Lautner’s little motel accomplishes a wild feat of teleportation here, a prime example of how architecture can frame a building or landscape, radically altering one’s perception of it. The silent bunker dissolves, and inside is an enclosed and protected desert terrarium that weaves the landscape through the property with ease. Its deceptive dimensions are exploded, and its footprint seems to grow generous and expansive in the natural light. This rich spatial experiences delivers more than its quiet exterior could ever promise. It’s a building that seems to smuggle in sunlight.
“It feels very sheltered, but you’re definitely connected to the surrounding nature,” says Frank Escher, of Escher GuneWardena Architects. “When you move around there, you don’t feel like you’re enclosed.”
Escher’s Los Angeles-based architecture firm has restored Lautner’s Chemosphere house, and his own designs are similarly interested in locating the kind of intertwined building and site resolutions that Lautner sought. Escher has also written a book about Lautner’s work, and sits on the Lautner Foundation’s board.
Escher says that Lautner always began his designs with interior spaces. “You can’t understand [Lautner’s architecture] unless you understand how it’s developed from the inside-out,” he says.
From his study with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West, Lautner learned to develop integration and communion with the landscape like few other architects, and at the Desert Hot Springs Motel, he compressed this interplay between land and building into a small and electrifying package. Lucien Hubbard (who produced Wings in 1927, the first film to win an Academy Award) intended the property to be a weekend retreat for he and his friends away from Los Angeles, but Lautner brought along a bit of Hollywood stagecraft anyway. Like a skillfully constructed Hollywood back lot set, the motel creates a domesticated, pet desert in the surrounding gardens and patios where the sun is never too bright and the wind is never too harsh. Like a set designer, he creates a scene with (sky)lighting and walls that obscure the authentically ‘real’ from the constructed, artificial ‘real.’ The little motel might just be the best short film Lautner ever made.
Indeed, he was better known for his later-career epics—big houses for big clients, like the cosmic, yet refined geometry of the Elrod House and Mar Brisas, the gravity-defying abandon of the Chemosphere. But in all these projects, the Desert Hot Springs Motel included, Lautner was using the same methodology to attack the same problems; only the client, budget, and sites were different.
“You’re getting the same impact, it’s just in smaller packages,” Trowbridge says of the motel.
All of Lautner’s projects began with interior experiences and worked outward to connect the buildings with their natural landscapes. He studied sites long and hard, and found ways to literally pull nature and topography into his buildings, whether they’re cut into the earth, sunk below ground, or perched on a hillside. His Elrod House incorporates boulders into its structure. The Pearlman Cabin in Idyllwild, Calif., uses tree trunks as structural elements, and the Sheats Goldstein residence trails its entrance through a pond.
“Now we say they’re iconic, but John was just doing what he knew how to do,” says Carr.
At no point was Lautner content to simply frame far-away views of nature through glass. “They’re never meant to be judged as objects in a landscape,” Escher says. “They’re always meant to be experienced as spaces.”
Viewed this way, the Desert Hot Springs Motel’s introversion isn’t any kind of early detour in Lautner’s journey to become one of the primary image-makers of Southern California’s bumper crop of Modern residential architects; it’s part of a progression. From 1947 when he finished the motel and on, Lautner became more and more adept at designing buildings that offered warm enclosure, a material and spatial connection with nature, yet still expressed their own aesthetic and formal identity.
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All images are of the motel pre-renovation by Beckmann and Trowbridge
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