Marvels of Palm Springs Modern

For California Modernism aficionados the annual Palm Springs Modernism Week, Feb. 12-21 this year, makes a valuable pilgrimage. While Palm Springs most iconic houses include masterworks by  first and second generation modernists Rudolph Schindler, who designed Coachellas first modern building, a cabin, in 1922, and Richard Neutra, designer of the Kaufmann House (1946), most modern design in Palm Springs came from the drafting boards of local architects. The Palm Springs Museum honors John Lautner, architect of the Desert Hot Springs motel, with a show opening February 19.

Lautners Elrod House (1968)

Lautner's Elrod House (1968)

The featured designers list for this years house tour is inspiring. Intriguing to non-initiates is William Krisel, master of the butterfly roof, Bobby Darins architect (dig the parterre, in colored gravel, for Darin); and designer of Elvis and Priscilla Presleys honeymoon home.  Krisel produced 30,000 modernist homes for production builders, saying “budgets and costs arent criteria for doing good design.” A Krisel modernist home at Racquet Club Estates cost $19,000 in 1959. “Modernism isnt a style or a trend. Its a language, a philosophy. The components of a structure become its ornamentation,”   Krisel said.

Albert Freys second house for himself, “Frey 2” – perhaps the lightest machine to grace the desert garden – will be open for tours.  Modernism Weeks Frey interview covers his early Corbusier apprenticeship, his Swissness,  his immigration to the US,  and his attitudes toward environmental, structural, seismic and acoustic design.  He argues against contemporary local codes limiting expanses of glass in southern California, pointing out rightly that roof overhangs protect against summer sun.  Never let their bureaucracy interfere with your creativity.  On the opposite coast, Frey and his first American employer, Lawrence Kocher,  built the aluminum and light steel Aluminaire House (1931) in West Hills, Long Island.  The Aluminaire was a search for an ideal, the sense of the nomadic life of the future, architect Tod Williams has said.  Frey subsequently rode the spirit of nomadism to the California desert.

Emphasizing the connection between aluminum and nomadism, Ace Hotel in Palm Springs hosts a show of vintage Airstreams.

On Saturday the 13th Modernism Week attendees can meet Don Wexler, the folded plate roof and prefab innovator.  The developers of Levittown used military modeled logistics to deliver materials to their housing sites.  In his Alexander Steel Homes, Wexler seems to have extended this idea to factory production of entire building volumes, delivering them to prepared sites for installation by crane.

Buterfly Roof, Twin Palms House, photo by Shulman

Buterfly Roof, Twin Palms House, photo by Shulman

This years PSMW cant pass without tribute to the late great Los Angeles photographer of modernism Julius Shulman, whose photo of Frank Sinatras house (above)  reflects how Sinatras meeting with architect E. Steward Williams (of Williams Williams and Williams), turned young Franks head from the Georgian style of his millionaire dreams to modernism.  I read one sentence of Shulmans Photographing Modern Architecture and bought the book.

Most of the Palm Springs modern buildings are either exquisite or lyrical formal objects.  A couple of designs offer dialectical solutions to site and environment.  Frey 2, structurally exquisite in its light steel roof and sheer plate glass walls, disrupts conventional architectural space by draping itself over the rocks of the natural landscape.  Lautner, in his cast concrete Arthur Elrod House (1968) achieves a paradoxical lightness with a massive fanlike concrete roof then with a suggestion of violence penetrates the glass walls with boulders competing with the raw concrete in their brute force.

The 10-day celebration is spangled with art shows and cocktail parties, reminders of the celebrity years when stars brought glamour to the Coachella Valley.

Top Photo: Palm Springs home designed by William Krisel and Dan Saxon Palmer

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