Everybody, Gather Round
To construct a Native American tribe's ceremonial building in Palm Springs, California, two design firms came together
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 10/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
Just beyond the trendy hotels and vintage shops of Palm Springs, California, the mid-century built environment gives way to timeless desert. There, amid formidable canyons and rocky peaks, stands the sprawling ceremonial building of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, a Native American tribe that has called Palm Springs home for half a millennium.
The tribe's traditional roundhouse, demolished by fire in the 1950's, had subsequently been replaced by something akin to a country club. It wasn't until 1995—with the opening of the Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs—that the tribe began to develop a revenue stream sufficient for constructing a new building to equal the site. Eventually, the matriarchs retained architecture firm Interactive Design Corporation for the project, and principal Reuel Young brought in Insight West Interior Design principal Wayne Williamson, himself a desert resident.
"Our goal was to convey strength and permanence," says Young—citing two of the qualities recently highlighted at the opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Young's vision, combined with Williamson's, led to an elemental solution profoundly rooted in the surrounding 7 acres of boulders, cacti, and massive California fan palms. Outside, water cascades into rock pools, and stones found on-site compose a ceremonial fire pit. The 12,000-square-foot structure itself presents a muscular composition of curves and angles. Stucco clads the curved walls; angular counterparts are poured or battered steel-reinforced concrete.
The exterior, however, is only a prelude. "The real drama is interiors-focused," says Young. Beyond the main entry's steps of red mountain stone and canopy of rough timber, the building houses three distinct public areas, plus a private one. This variety of spaces—suitable for groups ranging from 20 to 400—accommodates weddings, wakes, and other events as required.
First in the sequence comes the "lodge room," the main gathering area. The cavernous space is a windowless skewed cube, but numerous clerestories ensure penetration of white-hot sunshine. It falls dramatically on the room's focal point, an immense rock wall rising up to the 22-foot ceiling. Only from inches away can one discern that the "boulders" are actually glass-reinforced concrete, molded from canyon 'rocks and hand-painted to resemble the real thing.
A curved section of wall covered in silk defines part of the lodge room as a more loungelike "gathering room." Where the former is rugged, the latter is enveloping. The wall's curve represents maternal embracing arms; the silk's softly graduated earth tones derive from dyes made from indigenous plants.
The sweeping wall also frames an unusual built-in sofa that blurs the line between artisanship and sculpture. New York artist Mandad began by carving out blocks of foam rubber, which he upholstered in a slate-colored cotton blend, then covered with a mixture of slate-colored silicone and sand excavated from the site. Along the sofa's meandering 65-foot length, seat heights vary from 1 to 2 feet, depths from 15 to 28 inches. Pragmatically, the irregular form provides comfort for both adults and children; poetically, mere furniture is transformed into an outcropping of rock.
Metaphorical, too, are the custom occasional tables found not only in the gathering room but also in the lodge room as a whole. Williamson knew their creator, Daniel Pollock, 30 years ago when the two were living in the desert, Pollock eking out a living as a woodcutter. Since then, his work has evolved into recognized sculpture, as evidenced by the 15 pieces here—carved over a two-year period from native cottonwood, juniper, pine, or avocado.
A table of a markedly different description dominates 'the adjoining dining room, the third of the building's triumvirate of public spaces. Designed by Williamson in mahogany, wengé, and blued steel—and measuring 12 feet in diameter—this massive piece had to be flown in by helicopter. Up to 22 members of the tribe can gather around the table's circumference for ceremonial feasts or informal meals. At the center, a lazy Susan revolves beneath the delicate inverted-pagoda form of a chandelier in mulberry-bark paper from Nepal.
Discussion groups, mentoring programs, and other gatherings of a more business-minded nature take place in the private council room, which reprises several themes from elsewhere in the building. Mulberry-bark paper covers the inside of the door to the room. Trompe l'oeil stone reappears in the form of an MDF tabletop painted to resemble weathered cocoa stone, with edges chiseled to enhance the effect.
Materials and techniques aside, the project's major component was tribal pride. It's expressed throughout, starting with the mandalalike Cahuilla logo incorporated in the double entry doors of steel and sandblasted glass. And an elusive spirituality pervades the architecture and interior. In hiring Young and Williamson, the Agua Caliente Band clearly hit the jackpot.