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The Organic Desert Architecture of Ken Kellogg

Posted by Morgan Miles Craft On 2:05 PM

by Morgan Miles Craft
South of US Highway 62, in the scrublands bordering Joshua Tree National Park, a knoll of sun-baked boulders rises a hundred feet high. On its opposite flank, shielded from the asphalt tendril of civilization and facing the sentient rock formations of the park, a semi-concave structure of layered concrete crouches largely camouflaged among the boulders, as if in wait. That this is someone’s home seems less significant than that it is actually there. Obviously intelligent in design, it also appears to have evolved from, or perhaps collapsed into, its setting—an outcropping of preternatural elegance… or the vertebral remnants of a prehistoric beast. It is, literally and symbolically, the pinnacle of organic architecture. And it is the brainchild of one Kendrick Bangs Kellogg. (Click here to read on...)
The concept for the High Desert Home, as Kellogg calls his creation with ironic aridity, was inspired by the works and words of Frank Lloyd Wright. “So here I stand before you… declaring organic architecture to be the modern ideal,” said Wright in 1939. “(It is) the teaching so much needed if we are to see the whole of life, and to now serve the whole of life, holding no traditions essential to the great TRADITION.” This grand declaration—the springboard for an architectural movement founded on patterns and materials inherent in the natural world—turned on the notion that nature could do no wrong. Postulated Wright: “(In) an organic architecture, that is to say an architecture based upon organic ideals, bad design would be unthinkable.”

As a student at the University of Colorado in the 1950s, Kellogg happened upon a photo of Wright’s 1937 residential masterpiece, Fallingwater. “This was my third school,” recalls the San Diego native, “and only at that moment did I become aware of architecture that was a compliment to the natural world, in harmony with it.” Soon afterward Kellogg attended a lecture by Wright at the famed architect’s Taliesin West institute in Scottsdale, Arizona. It was the career impetus he needed.

Becoming licensed in 1964, Kellogg set out determined to fulfill, and even further, Wright’s organic architecture precept. A beach boy by birth, his forward designs caught the attention of surfer-turned restaurateur Buzzy Bent, founder of the upscale Chart House restaurant chain. Bent also was a proponent of organic architecture, having worked previously with Wright protégé Frederick Liebhardt, and he and Kellogg clicked.

Kellogg’s organic approach would become the chain’s signature building style for years to come. His first project was the company’s new Santa Barbara restaurant, which became  a model for all future Chart House designs. Locations in Aspen, Sun Valley, Maui and Redondo Beach followed. Then, in 1977, he was commissioned to create a Chart House for a unique property dominated by a rocky hillock along Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage.

Thirty years later, Kellogg returned to the eatery—then known as Haleiva Joe’s—to discuss how he arrived at its boulder-hugging, drift-like contours. “I emulated the rolling effect of sand dunes and buried the structure in the ground, using rock from right here in the interior and exterior walls,” he says, explaining his solution to the dual challenge of harmonizing with the property’s existing features and meeting the city’s then-13-foot building height limit. “I love working in the Desert, utilizing the stone and natural foliage. You have to imagine how a structure will develop naturally on the site; it’s the nature of things that inspires, not the copying of nature.”

 Architect Ken Kellogg at his Rancho Mirage Charthouse building
The restaurant building has received numerous plaudits, including the Palm Springs Modernism Committee’s 2003 Preservation Award and the 1994 Vintage Pinot Noir Award for energy-efficient design. The building, in fact—capped with a four-inch insulating layer of polyurethane foam—incorporated energy-conserving elements before there were standards. “Green is what I’ve been doing all along,” Kellogg says. “It’s in the spirit of organic architecture.”

Two decades after his Rancho Mirage achievement, that spirit moved Kellogg up Highway 62 to a new endeavor that would become the High Desert Home. The project was commissioned by a pair of artists who embraced Kellogg’s design concepts and already owned the rugged hillside site. “They were just seeing what I would come up with and were totally involved in the process,” he says. One of the artist-owners actually made a model from the architect’s drawings that allowed everyone to visualize and analyze the structure’s aesthetics three-dimensionally prior to construction.

Certainly there was a lot to consider. Designed for thermal energy gains, the residence is at once surreally contemporary and (with apologies to the kitschy landmark dinosaur buildings just off I-10 in Cabazon) suggestive of a giant bleached, prostrate ribcage from the Jurassic Period. The intriguing effect is accomplished by 26 curved “wings” of concrete—some spanning 50 feet—anchored in cantilevered concrete platforms. These elements, separated by expanses of glass, are spaced generously to allow for any movement caused by the area’s innate seismicity; the San Andreas Fault is a scant 15 miles away. (The structure is reinforced 30 percent beyond California’s highest earthquake standards.)

“The civil engineer couldn’t fathom all the calculations from my drawings,” notes Kellogg almost proudly, “so I had to derive the proper formulas myself. Dirt-devil science, I called it!” The concrete slab and frame structure were poured first, with the curving concrete surfaces formed in plaster and then washed smooth and covered in urethane. With random shapes, curved walls and ceilings, and finishing details in metal, glass and native stone, the structure is a symphony of textures that, combined with the natural light admitted by irregular clerestories, creates the drama of a cathedral.

The home’s startling, museum-quality interior woodwork and metal fixtures were crafted by artist and metalworker John Voggeren, with much of it conceived and fabricated on-site. Doors, latches, sinks and toilets became objets d’art in their own right, sculpted and formed to carry the theme of their given environment. “John is precise, an absolute artist, but I took him to his limit on this one,” says Kellogg. “Most people wouldn’t have gone in the way-out directions we went, but the owners almost never stopped us.”

This especially is true of the home’s custom furnishings, such as the flowing metal artist’s table on the main floor. “John couldn’t figure out how to finish it at the end, so I suggested continuing it and connecting it to the ceiling. We cast it right in place.” The living quarters are all on the brighter upper level, with semi-circular bedrooms about 20 feet in diameter.

“There are no rules in organic architecture—it develops a new style every time you employ it,” says Kellogg, adding that he believes the High Desert Home, like Wright’s Fallingwater, one day will serve as a public architectural exhibit and perhaps even a new welcoming center for Joshua Tree National Park. “It is the reinterpretation of nature’s principles to create forms in harmony with the landscape, rather than on top of it.”

What does he think the future of organic architecture holds? “You tell me,” he says. “Pick a site and let’s see what happens.”
(Images: Morgan Craft and A. Weintraub)

For more information on the life, career and works of Ken Kellogg, visit

1 Response to "The Organic Desert Architecture of Ken Kellogg"

  1. Ian Challis Said,

    Fascinating article. As an occasional visitor to the area, seeing the old Chart House restaurant is the best part of driving down hwy 111. Thanks for introducing me to the work of Ken Kellog.