Doolittle I 2018 Tom Blachford
archival pigment print on lustre paper
90 x 134 cm
edition 10 + 2 AP
Framing: handmade, stained Tasmanian oak with raw Blackwood corner spine detail and non-reflective glass
Excerpt taken from New York Times ‘Rock Legend’ (14/05/15)
Deep in the desolate heart of Joshua Tree hides a house as otherworldly as the landscape itself.
The five-page note came by mail, unbidden, in March 1986, handwritten on plain paper in a pleasant scrawl:
“Dear Mr. Kellogg, My wife and I recently purchased a very interesting, though unconventional, building site in the California desert. . . .”
Sent by a pair of artists, Jay and Bev Doolittle, the letter was the beginning of a relationship that would result in perhaps the most unsung great residence in America by one of architecture’s least-known major talents. While it was John Lautner, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, who gained international fame for his works in the California modern organic style during its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, Kendrick Bangs Kellogg, now 80 and still practicing, has championed the style and pushed it beyond what even Lautner, who died in 1994, might have imagined. The house Kellogg built for the Doolittles on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, an hour from Palm Springs, is arguably his apotheosis: a nearly 5,000-square-foot marvel of engineering in which every inch, inside and out, including the furnishings, is hand-hewn from natural materials using soaring, twisting, curvilinear forms that are at once trippy and ambitious and — perhaps surprisingly — serene.
The house appears suddenly, atop a sprawling five-story-high pile of rounded boulders, perched like an alien spaceship or a giant armadillo. Seen up close at the end of a winding path beyond the spiky Brutalist fence welded by John Vugrin, the craftsman who labored for two decades on the house’s interiors, the structure seems both part of the ancient landscape and otherworldly. Technically wall-less, it is formed of 26 enormous cantilevered concrete columns sunk seven feet into the bedrock. Each column, which Kellogg bathed in molasses to achieve a natural texture, fans out like an airplane wing at the top, overlapping the next to form a roof line. Between the columns, virtually invisible from many vantage points, is thick tempered glass that lets wide stripes of light fall into the house during the day; at night, from the dining table or the curved leather built-in sofa in front of the copper.
The High Desert House was born, as most great buildings are, from aesthetic fearlessness, which the Doolittles had in excess, Kellogg says. Formerly in advertising in Los Angeles, they had become successful with limited-print editions of Bev’s hyper-realistic layered scenes of Western life and American Indians. Looking for an architect for the 10-acre plot in Joshua Tree, they had happened upon a Julius Shulman photo of Kellogg’s Yen House in an architecture magazine. They knew instantly Kellogg was the one to build them a house that wouldn’t intrude on the landscape but embrace it.
The house takes full advantage of its outrageous setting — inside, you feel as though you are on the bridge of a luxurious spaceship gazing safely at the lunar landscape beyond the glass — but the interiors compete with the view for attention. There are five loosely defined levels, with discrete rooms parsed by the huge arched concrete structural pillars, but because of the endless curves, the spaces flow into each other almost seamlessly. There is virtually no free-standing furniture, save some dining chairs made, like everything else, by Vugrin, who worked alone for years at the site after the exteriors were finished (in 2002, the Doolittles finally were able to move in; Vugrin’s work continued until 2014). His main motif can be found throughout the house: glass-topped table bases in carved marble or wood that resemble the spines or rib cages of prehistoric creatures. Some are miraculously cantilevered from the concrete columns, and the two long ones that Bev Doolittle used as drawing desks are attached to enormous steel arcs that soar to the ceiling, bisecting the loftlike room. Above them is strung a series of Sputnik-like lamps, also Vugrin creations.
“It’s like the Sistine Chapel,” says Kellogg, referring to a point at the center of the room where the two glass tops nearly touch — Adam reaching for the hand of God.
Every surface is crafted, inlaid or textured with natural materials, from mahogany to steel and glass tile; nothing machine-made or manufactured, save the guts of the plumbing fixtures (Vugrin, as adept with metal as with wood and stone, welded his own spouts and handles that integrate into a free-standing vanity that resembles sculpture). The arc of kitchen cabinets is patinated metal; directly above, supported by an illuminated mushroom- shaped support structure, is a circular master bedroom. Its half-height curved bookshelves allow a panoramic view of the desert, and an adjoining bathroom has a fountain — made from one of the boulders that juts into the house — that circulates a cascade of water into a trough near a hand-mosaiced tub.
Kellogg built the house to last forever, he says, though in 2014 the Doolittles sold their masterpiece, having lived there for 12 years — less than the time it took to build.