Stone Court Villa by Marwan Al-Sayed

Designed in 2015 by Marwan Al-Sayed, this luxurious desert house is located in Paradise Valley, Arizona.

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A ten acre desert site that contains two desert washes. A modern, yet archaic architecture of walls that contain space and space that contains walls. Space becomes thinned out form and form becomes condensed space. Massive walls inscribed in the earth. From above, snake like and calligraphic in form blurring boundaries between outside and inside, courtyards and rooms, container and contained.

Wonderful vistas to both nearby desert landscapes and distant peaks.

Walls are introduced, repetitively and deliberately, compressed and then elongated as the space or view dictates. Snake like mass walls of light 3” Veracruz Mexican saw cut limestone, moving in and out of the living spaces, blurring boundaries…light fabric overhangs delicately suspended between the mass walls. Walls containing space, life, courts, water, trees, laughter, thoughts and shadows.

The stacking of the stone is inspired by both memories of a beautiful Japanese bamboo cutting board, with its even and subtle yet irregular offsets… well as the work of abstract painter Agnes Martin….repetitive with subtle differences creating a complex box of depth and surface. The effect is not unlike a mother of pearl box, created by the shimmering variations of the stone and how it is laid, both regularly yet with deliberate variation. Roland Barthes ‘repetition differente’.

Slowly a pattern emerges, shifts and then unwinds Repetitive but not repeated, Even – here, elongated – there ….extended, here compressed there. Subtle varieties of color, texture, line all effect to create a richness of experiences for daily life.

The slicing of stone left exposed, the splash of water, the capture of light…the walls exclude what is weak and undesired so that what is vibrant and alive can flourish in peace.

A modern timeless ruin in the Sonoran desert, inhabited by the softness of the bodies within and the glimpses of shimmering landscapes and light particular to the desert outside.


Approach to the house is drawn out over the length of the site– one passes a solid entry form and gate and slowly ascends past the stepped tree terraces that align with the main entry- distant memories of the temple of Queen Hatsheput not far behind in the back of my mind.

The house appears first as a long low block or cube of stacked stone (in certain lights the sheen of the stone and staggered joints suggests a box of mother of pearls). This low horizontal block of reflective stone reveals little and serves as a base to Mummy Mountain, visible beyond. A few deep apertures, one announced by long slots of light, signal entry. Passing through the shaded thick mass carved by light and water, one glimpses the entry courtyard beyond. A pair of black metal gates, defined by “building the offset joints of the stone walls” in metal, screen the view beyond. Composition of stone, joints, metal and wood all aim at quieting the effect of design and simply delivering a quality and atmosphere of space and sound, of shade and light, of retreat, cave and aperture to the surrounding landscape.

The entry courtyard is open and bright, shaded by four mesquite trees, inscribed by narrow water channels and a small inlaid black stone fountain. To the right the view opens up to the desert beyond and the walls that contain the courtyard also contain a large dark greenish black body of water. Wherever water occurs, the stone is perforated by alternating bands of light and air. This body of water, with a negative edge to the desert, hides a deep swimming pool and the lower pool terrace beyond, thus the impression one has is of a large abstract plane of water reflecting only sky and desert beyond- purity of experience, raw, archaic memories filtered through my own and the clients past visits to Southern Spain, the Alhambra , Cordoba with its serene gardens and spaces enclosed by carved mass of stone walls.

From this court one is led straight towards the canted walls of the entry volume, from which one can see into the entry hall and beyond to the stone water court at the end of this formal entry axis.

The House

The house is defined by 13’-0” high stacked lime stone wall masses that alternately create a series of enclosed and open spaces with floating roofs above and thick masses below. The House is laid out so that one is weaving back and forth between carved mass and open space as this becomes a central feature of the layout and how the landscape is opened and closed as needed to the occupants. A rythym is created that constantly fluctuates and blurs the distinction between what is considered inside and what is outside as the materials are monolithic and reduced to a few elements so that the emphasis remains on the desert beyond and the nuances of light and shade that play across the walls and spaces and emphasizes the life lived within and around the walls.
The dining room to the left of the entry hall, occupies an outdoor space captured between two of the weaving stone walls, and enclosed on either end by glass walls, thus giving the impression of being an outdoor space, even though fully enclosed. Beyond the dining room past 4 pivoting white oak doors is the mass of the kitchen and mud room area contained within a long low mass that turns to form part of the secondary bedroom wings and recreation room. To the right of the main entry hall is the main living room which opens to the north and the entry courtyard, with glimpses of the pool and guest suite beyond. At the rear of the living room a pair of large sliding glass doors opens out to a covered terrace that faces the mountain view and desert beyond. Beyond the living room an open stone fire screens access to the master bedroom, yoga room and family room.

As part of the overall desire by the client to have a timeless and quiet house, the mechanical cooling and heating system for this house is unique for residential construction. Hundreds of tiny capillary tubes are embedded in the plaster ceiling above and when filled with chilled water of about 63 degrees, this closed loop system creates a cold plane that draws the heat from the occupants body to the cooler surface thus effectively creating a bio-climactic conditioning system that has numerous benefits over the conventional forced air systems of the past – purer, cleaner air, more even comfort and cooling capacity and completely sound free thus contributing to the serene and peaceful effect of the architecture itself.

Photography courtesy of Marwan Al-Sayed

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- by Matt Watts