DAVID IRWIN: Art, Poetry, Philosophy…and Architecture

By Christy Addis-Gutierrez

Photo by Lucas Dabrowski

Photo by David Tang

Some people create buildings. Some people create communities. David Irwin does both, while adhering to a central tenet of his life, “You must be who you are, not what you think you should be.”

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“I was an artist before I was ever trained as an architect,” says Irwin, who always carries a sketchbook with him. While acknowledging that computer programs have their necessary place in design, Irwin’s process is also firmly rooted in hand skills, like drawing and sketching, and building concept models to test out forms and proportions, in the initial stages of design thought. “I really enjoy the tactileness. I like creating physical models. I like drawing. I think that tactileness helps create ideas. I think that when you face a screen that’s flickering at you, it’s a different relationship…but it doesn’t matter if it’s a computer or if it’s by hand, what’s important is getting across the emotion and the intention inside of the space.” His Joshua Tree studio reflects his creativity, with shelves of books, models, architectural plans and renderings, and copious amounts of his drawings occupying every surface. Well-organized and immensely captivating, the studio provokes admiration. The vibe is: a lot happens here.

Irwin studied furniture design in Denmark and trained as an architect at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He also worked under Lebbeus Woods, one of the most thought-provoking and inventive architects of our time. After a stint in San Francisco, Irwin hit a crossroad and took off to France for an intensive meditation retreat to pursue a “spiritual inquiry, and to look deeper within myself.” The clarity he received during this retreat opened his eyes to the path that lay ahead of him: leaving San Francisco for good, and moving to the high desert. He observed that “there’s this wildness here, there’s a sense of opportunity, of discovery.” In his case, moving to the high desert was an opportunity to discover more about himself and what he was capable of.

Since arriving, Irwin has designed some impressive residences in Joshua Tree with his atelier, Terra Projects. “Lawyers have clients. Artists have patrons. A patron is a supporter of the arts. Establishing early on that I am interested in having patrons, not clients, is extremely important, because for me, I show up in such a way that I know that they support creating meaningful work in the world.” Each project tells a story, and each merges the indoor and outdoor living experiences as it melds with its specific site. Project 17, a home built in the Monument Manor neighborhood, sits nestled among the boulders, and boasts a tower-like studio for its quilt making owner. Project 30 is a proposed single-family home with high, distinctly angled, metal-clad exterior walls, and external sun-deflecting louver structures. Project 21 is a renovation and interiors project which uses unconventional materials, such as waterproof roofing paper for bathroom walls, and brass beads for a shower curtain that directs water like a rain chain.

Photo by Joshua Tree Stays

Project 21, also known as Saunter Home, derives its name from the verb “to saunter” or to walk in a way that elicits spiritual reflection and connection. Saunter Home serves as the nexus from which Irwin builds a community. It has hosted an eclectic series of events, such as poetry readings, music performances, and art salons, all with the intent of bringing people together and starting conversations. His commitment to community extends to volunteering at the Way Station, and to producing a publication, Terra’s Quarterly: Culture, Architecture, Art & Business in Joshua Tree, CA, sharing thoughtful discussions pertaining to our distinct locality. The quarterly “was driven by wanting to give back…and to share my knowledge of what’s happening in Joshua Tree, what’s happened culturally, from a migration standpoint, a business standpoint, a creative standpoint. I wanted to share this, so I created the quarterly.”

The unmistakable underlying theme of all Irwin’s projects and endeavors is a wholehearted mindfulness, a heartfelt gratitude, a tender respectfulness for the beauties of nature and for the boundless realm of human connection. As he tells it, “It’s important to be as clear a channel as possible for the work to come through you, right? Because dreams don’t come true. Dreams come through.” The stories he tells, the places he designs, the people he connects, the curiosity he brings to life in the high desert, are reflected in his work.

To learn more, go to terraprojects.org.
Photos courtesy of Terra Projects.

Christy Addis-Gutierrez is a designer, curator, color expert, film professional, and project consultant. Christy is Program Director of the Fine Arts Film Festival in Venice, CA, is Film Curator for the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art and for !Hay Festival!, and is Vice President of the International Association of Color Consultants/Designers. She designed, decorated, and sourced for film sets for over a decade, taught art, design, and design history to high school and college students, managed numerous public mural projects, designed a photography book, and curated and/or exhibited in a number of fine art shows. A full-time resident of Joshua Tree, Christy enjoys contributing to the area’s vibrant creative community.

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