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PS Modernism Week: The Elrod House

Wherein I take a long architectural detour…

It’s mid-February, and tens of thousands of people from all over the world have descended on this small desert town for a modestly-labeled “week” dedicated to “celebration of mid-century modern design, architecture, and culture” that will run for nearly two weeks. Last night I had the good fortune to attend the opening night cocktail reception at the John Lautner-designed Elrod House, built for “interior designer to the stars” Arthur Elrod in 1968.

The Elrod House is perhaps best known to the public as the location of the “Bambi and Thumper” scene in the 1971 James Bond Movie Diamonds Are Forever. For architecture fans, it is one of the most extraordinary compositions of earth and sky, water and light, mass and lightness, ever conceived and built. It is one of the houses that Kurt and I promised each other we would tour the next chance we got, no matter what the cost.

So it was at least partially in the spirit of keeping yet another promise to Kurt that I bought my very expensive ticket, got myself as dressed up as I ever get (black tights, black boots and a shimmery, floaty, cream-colored poet-shirt) and drove myself across town to catch a shuttle bus up a steep hill into a gated community, just down the street from Bob Hope’s “turtle house” also designed by John Lautner. Yet it was far from a mere promise — I could hardly contain my excitement about what I was going to see and experience.

When I arrived at the shuttle pickup location and they handed me my “entry token,” I stopped worrying about whether I’d be underdressed and embarrassed in a house full of weathy socialites. Although the photo doesn’t show it, this lovely rubber bauble actually lit up and flashed in multiple colors:

It definitely set the mood for a funky, fun, 60s-style bash.

The entry courtyard is modest, cave-like, and gives no hint of what lies just within:

Once you pass through the wide smoked-glass entry door, the view opens out and you are suddenly in the middle of this:


The  60-foot wide living room lies beneath a massive concrete dome, with cutout spokes that are either huge skylights or recessed, lighted areas. The entire back “wall” is a curved glass door that slides fully open to the terrace and indoor-outdoor pool:

The kitchen is hidden behind the curved back wall of the living room, but is set off by a series of Dale Chihuly glass flowers (not part of the orginal Lautner design but added by Elrod). Each of these flowers is at least two feet across:

The interior and exterior are punctuated by several massive boulders, which Lautner intentionally revealed and then left in place during site excavation:

James Bond fans can probably picture Thumper lying around on one of these boulders as the scene begins. I talked to a woman who had visited the house many times back in the day and who had met the world-class gymnast who played that part.

The entire domed space is supported (or so it seems to me, but I am neither an architect nor an engineer) by a series of graceful concrete columns:

The entire effect is… well, I get to a point where I really have no more words. It is a gut-wrenchingly participative experience to simply stand in the middle of the room and take it all in.

The adjacent master bedroom is nearly as stunning, with a large T-shaped soaking tub framed by boulders and more of that curving, sliding glass. Apparently there is a second bedroom in a separate structure, but we were not able to view that room. As for the cocktail reception itself, there were long lines for exotic cocktails, servers walking around with trays of things this vegetarian doesn’t eat, and stations with decent vegetable trays, nuts, and the like. The evening wasn’t about consumption but about soaking in the ambiance of the place… the incredible lightness despite the massive scale, the mountainside looming in the dark, and the lights of the city below. It was sheer aesthetic transcendance, a spacial/platial experience that I will never forget.