World-class paintings and sculptures possess a constant ability to surprise. The more you look at them, the more you see; different layers and meanings reveal themselves with each viewing. This high-desert house outside Santa Fe, N.M., by San Antonio's Lake/Flato Architects, evokes a similar sensation. Principal in charge Ted Flato, FAIA, says the design was influenced by the work of artist Donald Judd. As with many of Judd's pieces, the house appears at first to be a simple collection of beautifully detailed boxes. But it soon blooms into a subtle, permutated exploration of its surroundings.

The residence rests on a knoll containing spectacular 360-degree views of Los Alamos, N.M., and several mountain ranges. Between the site and those views, however, lie many other houses. “There's nothing wrong with them, but [they create] a lot of visual noise,” says project architect Andrew Herdeg, AIA, a partner at Lake/Flato. He and Flato realized they could edit out those neighbors by pulling the house apart—into six small buildings around a central open space—and using the solid masses to frame desirable views and block out unwanted ones. The buildings' positioning helps control the intense sun and strong winds of the local climate, and it also relates the project to Santa Fe's historic architecture. “We wanted to circle the wagons a bit to create a closed courtyard, which is very traditional for that area,” Flato says. Wide porches, known locally as portales, connect the structures and provide shaded outdoor rooms.

Like Judd with his boxes, Flato and Herdeg established small distinctions among the home's six pieces. Their sizes, shapes, and layouts vary; for example, the largest building has tall ceilings to emphasize its public role as the living and dining space, while the three guest bedroom structures are low-ceilinged and long. The multiform setup and its many portales deliver dozens of different ways to experience the house and the site.

Although the home's materials are simple and elemental, Flato and Herdeg chose them with the utmost care. Waxed, naturally colored concrete floors ground the interior spaces, while the portales feature textured limestone underfoot for better traction. “We played with the [concrete] mix and different finishes to make a nice, rich gray rather than a cold white,” Herdeg explains. Sealed-plaster interior walls achieve the same warm effect, and three coats of cementitious stucco on the exterior give a smooth look that contrasts with board-formed concrete retaining walls and rusted steel detailing.

The home's flat roofs and dusty adobe hue satisfy local design restrictions, but Lake/Flato's most neighborly move was to place the buildings a few yards down the knoll's sloping sides, rather than right on top of it. “It's being a good neighbor in the flats of the desert,” Flato says. “The smaller buildings feel very, very short and unobtrusive.”

project: Private residence, Santa Fe, N.M.

architect: Lake/Flato Architects, San Antonio

general contractor: Denman & Associates, Santa Fe

landscape architect: Julia Berman Design, Santa Fe

interior designer: The Design Studio, Dallas

project size: 4,200 square feet

site size: 1.5 acres

construction cost: Withheld

photography: Timothy Hursley, except where noted