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2014 MCHAP

Desert Courtyard House

Wendell Burnette

Scottsdale, AZ, USA

Janaury 2013


Wendell Burnette Architects


LeavittWeaver, Inc. (Interior Design / Furniture) The Construction Zone (Contractor)


Steve & Beverlynn Elliott


Bill Timmerman


The site soil was uniquely suited for rammed earth, which of course requires a stable foot(ing) and a hat for protection. For the foot, we raised the requisite foundation just above the flood plane as a base and then expanded it into the courtyard as a piano nobile, beyond the thick perimeter walls, as the most elemental form from which to view the expansive qualities of land and sky - a massive land based land scaled - plinth. The plinth was cast in place with one material throughout such that a wall, a floor, a ramp, a step, or a bench could be experienced as part of one contiguous stone. The top of the plinth is ground to a polished finish and the plinth outsides are sandblasted to soften the mass and to refract light in a way akin to the decomposing granite landscape when viewed at a distance. The mass of the plinth extends up vertically with thick earthen thermal mass walls providing comfort and protection for the courtyard appearing to meet the sky without termination. The canopy was conceived as a large foldout pattern cut, folded and faceted to shade the plinth and walls always terminating its edges to zero in order to conceal its weight and thickness. The overall height of the landform follows the ground at precisely 24’ in a segmented monocline that spirals almost imperceptibly up and around and out where the solid mass of the courtyard form opens up to the distant west.


The site is a peninsula of granite outcroppings and towering Saguaro cacti surrounded on all sides by deep perennial desert washes except for a single spit of land affording access from an Ocotillo studded ridge above. The building site, further down a long private drive, levels out toward the west into an edge condition dominated by an expansive vista. Due to the elevation of the site beneath the community’s gaze it became important to us - to recede the house as a deep shadow - into the depth and complexity of the desert floor below. At the highest point of the site we took delight in a large arrow-shaped granite boulder pointed west, a peculiar group of volcanic rocks and a large multi-armed Saguaro between. Standing in this place for the first time, we felt immediately compelled to hold and preserve a microcosm of this precious primordial desert landscape including an equally infinite piece of its indomitable sky. In summary, the desert courtyard concept offered us the chance to corral a piece of ancient time unencumbered by the recent development and to do so with a form that evolved from the surrounding landscape, its natural power, its geologic mass, its delicacy, one which would feel as though it had always been there. We began to ask the question “whether the courtyard walls could literally grow from the site itself, from the site excavation with no import no export required?”


Earth and Sky The omnipresent ever-changing light, along with the flora and fauna, now harbored within the landform is continuously experienced and physically supported by an inwardly focusing Engawa space that almost completely circumscribes the inner court garden with a taut continuous plane of reflection and transparency - operable and fixed - suspended between and just beyond the canopy and the plinth. The plan and its enclosing form is best understood as one mass that has been split, fractured, eroded from within and fallen open and apart to a position of repose on the land and “lived in” as one continuous space. Mass, Hollowed Mass, Faceted Mass, Fissured Mass, Mass that cracks open and hinges apart informed how we proceeded to give this home its defining qualities from the courtyard plan, to the split-massing, all the way down to the fittings and fixtures that one touches with the hand or the eye. For instance, the millwork is volumetric only revealing contents within when a contoured bronze void is touched with the fingertips allowing the mass to be gently cracked open. Long fissures in the mill-finish steel plate ceiling reveal light while maintaining the quality of nothingness at night. Mass and the improbability of delicacy discovered within it, is what gives the Sonoran Desert its remarkable presence. As our clients and their guests move into the mass of this landform into our Engawa, we hope they will always rediscover with a hint of surprise the preciousness of things.

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