An Experiment in Primitive Living

The Salton Sea, California was created in 1905 when irrigation channels burst their banks and the Colorado river flowed into the Imperial Valley for two years. After WW2, property speculators laid out a number of new developments around the lake’s shore, and promoted it as a ‘new Palm Springs with water’. However, water could only flow into the valley, so increasing salination and toxic agricultural run-off, erratic changes in water level and mass fish die-off have meant that the ambitious plans of the 1960s to develop the area into a recreational resort were abandoned. A few of the first developments remain occupied but most buildings are dilapidated and the majority of the plots were never developed.

Taking the slab of the unrealised Salton City Airport as my starting point, my project investigated the climatic limitations and opportunities of the site, and a number of local and international precedents for extreme desert living. My final proposal imagines the facades of a local derelict balloon-frame house reused as shuttering from which are cast the courtyard walls of a new, subterranean dwelling.

Project produced within Mark Campbell and Stuart Dodd’s Intermediate Unit at the Architectural Association, London, October 2011-June 2012.

Submitted to fulfil RIBA Part 1 qualification in June 2013.

A satellite view reveals the airport's runway, terminal building and surrounding streets. Almost all of the neighbouring building plots have remained empty since they were first laid out in the 1960s.

Salton City Airport: the derelict site's foundation slab becomes part of the desert surface

the derelict airport's slab, and a corresponding sun path diagram for the site's latitude and longitude

Based on the previous sun path diagram, these drawings describe the shadows that would be cast by a cube on the site throughout the day and the year.

A sequence of seven environments- open, colonnade, ramada colonnade, walled colonnade, olla room (using evaporation as a method of cooling), concrete mass, and buried concrete mass- provide varying thermal conditions within which to dwell throughout the year

These seven conditions imagined as a structural sequence.

One of the precedents I investigated for the project was that of Yaquitipec, a homestead set up in 1930 by Marshall South and his family in a remote part of Anza Borrego. South made a meagre living writing about their existence at Yaquitipec. In 1941 a contributor to Desert Life Magazine stated that ‘we escape through Marshal South. He does the things we would like to do... he lives our dream life for us...’ However, within five years Tania, his wife, filed for divorce. She would later write that 'the idea of establishing a cultural preserve to ’honour’ the stark, miserable existence that Yaquitipec represented is quite absurd to me. Marshal has glorified our existence on the mountaintop in his articles in the Desert Magazine. He was a superb fiction writer.’

Yaquitipec was inhospitable due to the shortage of water, the high summer temperatures, the inability to cultivate food, and the substantial distance from the nearest source of supplies that needed to be covered on foot. However, the mild winter climate and secluded location of the homestead allowed for a sense of freedom and privacy too. The built structures only contained the family's activities during the hottest part of the year, meaning that their domestic existence had a less definitive relationship with their buildings than conventional housing of the 1940s.

1960s promotional material for Salton Sea Vista.

The area around Salton Sea airport is scattered with abandoned houses in various states of decay. With no shortage of space at my site; the advantage of an existing underground structure within the airport terminal's slab; and no limitations of access, how might the ruin of the mid-century speculative property boom be adapted into a contemporary solitary retreat?

chart of how comfortable each of the seven environmental conditions would be during the day and night and per month of the year, showing how everyday domestic operations would contract into the underground spaces (the olla room and buried concrete space) during the summer and expand into the others during the winter months.

sequence of the seven spaces imagined in section

Plans and elevations of the local abandoned house

A two-storey cavity is cut into the derelict slab. The dismantled facades of the abandoned local house are used as formwork to cast the walls of the interior spaces. The house's form is still legible, but having been turned inside out it becomes the container for the dwelling's central courtyard.

plan view of the slab, with a series of dwelling spaces based on the proportions of the derelict house. 1, Ocotillo Garden; 2, White Studio; 3, Courtyard; 4, Terrace; 5, Ramada

Various domestic activities plotted throughout these spaces, with summer (the most limited) at the top, spring and autumn in the centre, and winter at the bottom.

Axonometric projection of domestic uses throughout the layers of the house.

12 axonometric projections- one for each month of the year- showing domestic use of the building's spaces as the seasons change

The building in three sections.

Three sections, indicating the materiality of the proposed dwelling.