The Site Is the Star

By Peter Nichols

Architect Sean Lockyer ’99 Brings the Great Outdoors Indoor

Being an architect, you’d expect Sean Lockyer, an alumnus of the College of Architecture and the Built Environment and the founding principal of Studio AR&D Architects, to think of buildings as playing the starring role. But it’s not that simple, especially when you slow down to take a close look at the site for a new construction project.

“We survey each site and spend time there getting to know it and the surrounding landscape,” he says. “We get very deeply involved. It’s even more helpful if we draw the site. When you do that, you start to see little bumps and oddities that you hadn’t realized were there.”

Taking time to stop and sit within the big vistas and to notice each tree and rock and ripple of earth promotes a kind of intimacy. That personal knowledge, or maybe it's a feeling—more poetry than science—complements the survey measurements and starts to intimate the way a building might inhabit the landscape and how the scenery might be brought into the structure too.

“Oftentimes,” Lockyer notes, “we find that the site becomes more of the star of the show.”

That’s especially true with sites in Palm Springs, where he and Studio AR&D Architects do much of their best work. The desert terrain is captivating and can look more than a little otherworldly. It would be a shame to build walls that hide what’s outside from the inhabitants inside.

When it comes to architecture and landscape in these spaces, Lockyer invariably finds himself reaching for expressions like “blurring the lines” and “flow and bend into each other.” In many of his projects, the words “inside” and “outside” have to be applied with a light touch.

“The landscape is integral to the architecture of the building,” he says, “so they’re not separated in our office. Those two things should be thought about simultaneously and integrated from the very beginning of a project.”

A good example of how this works is the Schnabel Family Retreat, which is one of Lockyer’s favorites. Studio AR&D handled all design as well as construction, handcrafted much of the detail, and designed the landscaping.

The building site is an acre of land on a hillside with views of the San Jacinto Mountains rising on one side and the Coachella Valley falling away on the other.

“The site was 100 percent covered with boulders,” he recalls. “We exported about 6 million pounds of them, and then each boulder that remained, we either picked it up, rotated it, reset it, or moved it to the other side of the property. We’re control super freaks. The site doesn’t look manipulated, but what that provides is a building that flows into the terrain in some places and launches off the hillside in others.”

From the inside, sliding glass walls and doors as well as windows and glass panels frame views of boulders and desert shrubs and trees, or open wide onto big vistas of mountains and valleys. In some indoor spaces, there are narrow-framed views while in others sliding glass opens onto patios and gardens. Even the 4.5 bathrooms, either through glass or literally, open to the outdoors while still providing privacy. The long glass living room wall is penetrated by massive rocks that are both inside and outside the home and support a giant fireplace.

Roof gardens help the building blend into the land, but all the glass makes the structure dematerialize, despite the stone and concrete and steel. It’s a style of architecture that brings the great outdoors indoors and erects a building that’s completely at home in the landscape.

When it comes to architecture and landscape in these spaces, Lockyer invariably finds himself reaching for expressions like “blurring the lines” and “flow and bend into each other.” 

The project earned an American Architecture Award in 2016.

Each year, the prestigious recognition singles out the best new buildings and highlights new and creative directions in design thinking.

Lockyer sums up the direction that he and his team are looking: “We strive for simplicity in materials and form, and then maybe frame something outside like a water feature, a tree, or the terrain itself—or sometimes we make a space that’s open to the sky. The building allows those things to sing a bit more and really complement the architecture itself.”