In Rancho Mirage-just outside of Palm Springs-there is no shortage of elaborate fountains, infinity pools and manmade palm oases. But at the eco-friendly home of Bobby Greenbaum, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist, water is much more than a mere decorative feature.
The concrete-block home’s entrance is marked by sand-blasted glass doors that emanate a faint blue glow, offering the first hint of the house’s most distinctive element. Inside, aquamarine light shimmers behind a large window. It’s an underwater portal, with a view of a 75-foot lap pool that runs the length of the first floor. The eye moves nest to the home’s main panorama, a sweeping view of Coachella Valley. It’s a dazzling contrast in perspectives: One moment, visitors are in an aquarium; the nest, they’re surveying the flinty desert landscape.
This unusual juxtaposition of water and land was created by Palm Springs architect Ana Escalante. Recognized as an emerging talent in L.A.’s Architecture + Design Museum’s “New Blood: Next Gen” show in 2006, Escalante has built a thriving solo practice with her brand of modern desert architecture. In line with the classic midcentury designs that the area is known for, her concrete-and steel aesthetic brought her to a client who needed o convincing of the merits of modernist style.
“I wanted Don to do the house,” recalls Greenbaum. “When I called him up, he said he no longer took an active role, but he did tell me who he was consulting for.” Wexler has worked with Escalante when she was designing a steel-and-glass studio as an addition to one of his original homes, and he passed along her name.
Greenbaum had an unusual challenge for Escalante. Dedicated to his daily swim, he wanted a swimming pool if substantial length-and he had an irregular lot with limited buildable space. “I thought, There’s no way in hell that I’m going to build a house that is dwarfed by the pool,” says Escalante. She responded with a design that literally place the pool at the center of the home and uses it for maximum architectural impact.
“Since Bobby lives here year-round, I wanted to provide some shade for him during his swim,” says Escalante. A second-story bridge spans the pool, shading a 25-foot section. “The upper-floor span also creates a more interesting experience, since lap swimming can get boring. As you swim, there is the feeling of moving from a small enclosed area into an expansive space, something that Frank Lloyd Wright was a proponent of.” The underwater window, meanwhile, was an idea born of a visit to SeaWorld with her two young daughters. “I could say that is was inspired by Johan Lautner and his Goldstein house, but really it was Shamu,” laughs Escalante.
Greenbaum’s desire to make the house a showcase of sustainability was the other driving force behind the design. Working with Escalante, Palm Springs interior designer Mark Nichols chose vertical-grain bamboo for the cabinetry and stair treads, recycled glass terrazzo for the kitchen countertops and recycled glass tiles for the bathroom walls and pool tiling. Landscape designer Marcello Villano surrounded the house with the native desert plants-brittlebush, ocotillo and palo verde-that would require minimal irrigation.
For his part, Greenbaum worked on coaxing the neighborhood development association to let him cover his roof with solar panels. “The association was worried that they would be too reflective.” Says Greenbaum, who had the California Solar Rights Acts on his side. “I think it’s inexcusable that people are not using solar panels every a new home goes up.” Solar power now supplies the lion’s share of the house’s electricity and hot water.
The home also conserves energy, primarily by leveraging the natural insulating properties of the earth. Escalante created a cool summer lounge by sinking the first floor four feet beneath grade. “It’s like a cave downstairs,” says Greenbaum. It really feels nice when the sun is pounding and it’s125 degrees outside.” For the second floor, Escalante designed a system of aluminum shutters, which can be pulled across the wall of windows during the hottest times of the year.
“After living in the desert for a while, you start to understand the environment and its demands.” Says Escalante, who has lived in Palm Springs for over 20 years. “It gets pretty extreme out here.”
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