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Light & Shadow, Water & Sand: Opposites Attract  July 04, 2006

Everyone knows that opposites attract. That’s the yin and yang of life, love and art. So it’s only natural that someone would decide that waterfront living in the desert is the perfect match—and it obviously works!

It Never Rains in California

This 70-acre community, with its 10 or 11 acres of meandering lakes and flowing waterways located in La Quinta is not only unexpectedly beautiful, it has won an ASLA award as well. The water makes it even more special because it’s located in a desert, but there is more to it than that. The water features serve a dual purpose. As part of the drainage system, the lake and ponds act as a water retention device. It also makes it a very special community. Due to the size of the parcel and the amount of it that is water, the water has become a major addition to the landscaping.

This project was started on a building site that came with extensive water rights, so that was obviously going to be a part of the design and master plan. There was, of course, some level of scrutiny from the city. The owner’s purchase of the land came with a certain fixed amount of water. However, the amount of water used on site is probably far less than what it takes to keep a golf course going.

To Cool and Reflect

Water in the desert is precious. These are all interconnected waterways, so everyone gets a chance to experience the water features. Because of the quality of light in the desert, combined with sunrise and sunset, the reflection on the water adds to the shifting views.

DTJ made it a goal to take advantage of the light and reflection. Accordingly, not only did they use the plantings to cast shadows, they also added sculptures replicating indigenous forms.

Since DTJ also did the architecture as well the landscape architecture, they were able to pull the architecture into the landscape and have it be a seamless meld. Where there are blank walls they planted mesquite, date palms, Chilean mesquite, and ocotillo.

To Extend the Eye

“The water features provide places for us to showcase the landscape and the powerful architecture,” said Shane Lekwa. “Pieces of land that jut out into the water provide an opportunity for combining all of the above without breaking the line of sight.”

The other exciting thing about the waterways is they helped in the planning portion. “Although you can’t see it on the original plan, there are really majestic mountain views and sunsets which extend the eye,” says Shane Lekwa. “This is a pretty packed site plan—but it is possible to get a long view to the mountains which, in combination with the waterways, provides a greater illusion of space.”

They worked with STO Design, a hydrology consultant in California, to create the water features utilizing as much as possible the natural terrain. Looking at the images it is hard to see, but there is a gentle grade, which provides a natural flow of water across the site.

To Create White Noise

One of the large issues that had to be handled with such a tight building plan was the issue of sound. With open water, sounds travels even better. Fountains were placed in the patio areas to mitigate car sounds and people’s voices. The splashing water creates a subtle white noise.

The four to five foot gradual drop allows the water to drop and flow naturally across the site. It is then pumped back up again via a series of pumps hidden in the landscape. It is continuously re-circulating through. Retention requirements meant there would be no rolling grade so they dropped down the accent walls. In some cases where they have the retaining walls, they designed simple metal scuppers that drop a stream into a series of catch basins.

At the entryway where guests stop or residents talk with gatehouse people, they’ve made sure that as you stop at the gate, you see the more natural views of water along with a very artistic and sculptural water feature.

STO Design provided the expertise on the technical aspects of the water feature development. They figured out how much water they needed to achieve the effects, the size of the pumps required to keep it all moving, the type of drops required for minimal but effective sound and the amount of volume that would best fulfill the landscape architect’s requirements as it passed over the edge—both for the length and the height of each water feature.

Actually, there is really just one large lake, however, it is broken down to feel as if it is several smaller ponds. Because the yards are small, 15 to 20 feet in depth with each house having a hot tub or pool abutting the lake beyond it, there is a sense of water coming right up to the living room.

To Enhance Art

Brightly colored stucco and stone accent walls were used to create different kinds of shadow patterns. The entryway uses the same slate as that used to accent the water features. This, in turn, creates a sense of community. Continuity was created by pulling all the elements from the master plan and then making sure they are seen in the landscape architecture as well.

Joe Tyler of Phoenix, Arizona did the sculptures seen not only in the water features, but also on the grounds as well. They wanted to set aside small areas in the landscape to make a statement about community art—how you don’t need to spend millions to get the million-dollar effect. Tyler came up with an abstract of an Agave, a century plant, which sends out a bloom. When lit from the below, they glow like a series of stars and have a raw, organic quality when juxtaposed against the clean geometrics of the houses, turf and walls.

To Creatively Delineate Space

Of course, a landscape needs basic things like walls, but DTJ came up with a way to turn them into something with a more artistic feel, something that made it more memorable. As far as the liberal use of brightly colored stucco walls is concerned, they too served a dual purpose. By using CMU block wall with a painted stucco finish, they were able to save the client enough money so when it came to adding original art, there was no longer a question of the extra cost.

“At night, the reflection of the house lights on the water features and ponds adds fairy dust, a little magic, if you will.”—Shane Lekwa

“There are probably a lot of people who hate it, but there is no room for a middle ground opinion,” says Lekwa. “This kind of coloring and design is not typical of the local semi-Santa Barbara style with its whites and tans, and block perimeter fencing. This may be the norm for the area, but it doesn’t pinpoint that particular place as spectacular.”

No one is supposed to swim in the ponds and there is no boating and there are no fish. The water is there primarily as a visual appeal. The art is in simply looking at the open spaces the water sets up among and between the houses.

Light in the Dark

The night sky is spectacular in La Quinta. Both Cochella Valley and Palm Desert have stringent restrictions on lighting. There is generally a minimal amount of street lighting and there are no streetlights inside the project.

There is some low level lighting on the homes, such as a soft wash of light on the houses, or perhaps minimal up-lighting in front of the date palms. They wanted to light the landscaping and create a glow, but avoid a parking lot effect. Says Lekwa, “Another source of light is the architecture of the homes themselves. They have a lot of glass, so at night the reflection of the house lights on the water features and ponds adds fairy dust, a little magic, if you will.”

The exotic water hues achieved at night are affected by the colors of the walls and the depth of the water. Deeper pools have a more traditional turquoise feel, but the dynamic of the bright red walls on shallower water helps bring out shifts of tone and color.

To Achieve Perfection

A lot of the design decisions evolved from being involved with the client who had a very clear vision. The original idea was, of course, to provide something really different, something that stands out and is unique. This in turn would draw potential buyers because it’s special, not just another house in another development. This vision meant that passion of place could take over and the end result is something quite out of the ordinary in every way.

Planner/Landscape Architect: Shane Lekwa, DTJ Design
Architect: Rick New, DTJ Design
Project Landscape Architect: Forrest Haag, Forrest Haag Design and Land Planning
Civil Engineer: Chris Berg, MDS Consulting
Water Features: Eddie Tan, STO Design Group Inc.

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