The beauty and grandeur of the American West has long been the backdrop to countless ambitious engineering feats, like the Hoover Dam and the breathtaking hiking trails carved into the earth by the Work Projects Administration in the 1930s. And today, the formidable, rocky terrain continues to inspire modern projects, including the contemporary abode architect Ron Robinette designed and built on 75 acres bordering the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. “Our goal was for this house to blend in with the desert,” says Robinette, who, for privacy, sited the house in a saddle between two large land peninsulas.
Concealed from view despite its lofty perch, the one-level home clad in stucco and porcelain tile certainly blends into the earthy mix of browns and reds of the surrounding rocks. Cantilevered “eyebrows” over the windows softly filter the light during the summer months, when the sun is higher, while allowing it to penetrate far into the home during the winter. Likewise, a towering 16-foot steel ramada with a wood lattice shades the house and makes use of the desert breeze. “The structure is a giant umbrella,” Robinette explains. “It also captures the wind going through the canyon and brings it into the house.”
The residence, which includes a guesthouse in a similar style, is the latest in a long line of projects the owners—entrepreneurs who recently sold their technology company—have taken on over the years, and this is their most ambitious one yet. “People come up and ask how we found this lot, and the answer is that we created it,” the wife says, “making it look like the house was just airdropped into its place.”
Before construction could commence, landscape designer John Stropko had to carve a flat building site out of the hillside. “The beautiful setting you see today was created by removing up to 30 feet of solid rock,” he says. Yet despite shifting the terrain, he took careful steps to make the site appear as if it had never been touched. To blend the freshly cut rocks with the reddish undisturbed ones, Stropko carefully stained the harsh white surfaces, even duplicating the veining and cracks on parts of the granite to match its surroundings. Mature trees, transplanted giant saguaros and camouflaged retaining walls veneered with excavated rubble complete the illusion of a natural environment. “The extraordinary thing here is that anyone who visits the home would have no idea the site was originally a hillside,” Stropko says. “It’s a magical place.”
Christening him the “land whisperer,” Chicago interior designer Lynn Boutross was inspired by Stropko’s exterior work for the interiors. “I used his knowledge of Arizona and the Southwest to select materials that would look good in the harsh desert sunlight,” she says. Most of the year, the rock reflects the sun’s red tones into the house. During the summer monsoons, however, the entire valley blooms, casting a greenish hue into the interior. To make the home feel part of the land, as requested by the wife, Boutross selected travertine flooring with a range of browns and silvery grays, a neutral base that complements the natural exterior palette.
In the great room, a comfortable sofa and a pair of mohair-covered lounge chairs create a cozy place for conversation, while custom walnut kitchen cabinetry and a tongue-in-groove ceiling add extra warmth. Like the one that anchors the outdoor living area, the massive fireplace surround extends through the roofline and includes a concealed skylight that allows light to wash down. “Penetrating the roof makes it feel lightweight,” Robinette says, “like it’s hovering over us.”
Throughout the house, natural light sets off the many metallic accents Boutross incorporated. “Some of the metals are raw and super textured, while some are smooth and polished,” she says. “I like that interplay.” The thread in the drapery has a metallic sheen, while the shagreen leather panels that clad the floating feature wall in the master bedroom have a subtle gleam.
True to the goal, the contemporary residence perfectly complements its desert surroundings—as well as its owners, who can be found hiking with their white golden retrievers on the newly created trails or relaxing on one of the home’s many patios. “You can see almost all the way to the mountains in Mexico,” the wife says. “This project stretched all of our abilities as far as anything could stretch them, but it turned out so well. This is the perfect house for us.”