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Desert Modernism

The architecture of Palm Springs

"A building can be designed to satisfy 'by the month' with the regularity of a provider. Or it can give satisfaction in a very different way, 'by the moment', the fraction of a second, with the thrill of a lover." - Richard Neutra

“A building can be designed to satisfy ‘by the month’ with the regularity of a provider. Or it can give satisfaction in a very different way, ‘by the moment’, the fraction of a second, with the thrill of a lover.” – Richard Neutra

Frank Sinatra wasn’t interested in mid-century Modern Architecture. It was late Spring, 1947, and Ol’ Blue Eyes had just inked a lucrative deal with MGM, and banked his first million. During Hollywood’s Golden Age, A-listers were contractually bound to a residential radius that ensured they were only ever two hours from the studio, and Sinatra, looking to build a weekender where he would host a lavish New Year’s Eve party the same year, headed 100 miles east of Los Angeles to Palm Springs. Architect E Stewart Williams had joined his father and brother’s Palm Springs firm a year earlier. On a sultry Thursday afternoon, Sinatra wandered in to the Williams, Williams & Williams offices wearing a white sailor hat and eating an ice cream cone, and said (according to legend) “I wanna house!”

Sinatra’s vision was for a sprawling Georgian weekender, and he wanted it by Christmas. Williams, then 38, didn’t want to jeopardise the business – this was his first residential commission – but equally, knew he ought to follow his instinct. He presented Sinatra with renderings of a distinctive, Modernist house, with long, horizontal lines, floor to ceiling windows, and an idea to use more ‘desert appropriate’ materials, including steel and aluminium. Sinatra was eventually convinced, and Twin Palms, as the house was christened, with its now iconic piano shaped pool, were Rat Pack ready by December.

The house’s completion unleashed a new architectural frontier. Desert Modernism — a
regional take on mid-century Modernism — had been bubbling away in Palm Springs for
around two decades already, led by visionary architects like Richard Neutra, Albert Frey, and William F. Cody. It had always been unique, incomparable to other styles, and unfathomable anywhere but the desert. Now, it was glamourous.

Palm Springs made Desert Modernism, not the other way around. Nestled in the Coachella Valley, and surrounded on every side by dramatic ranges, Palm Springs’ topography – all scorched earth, blankets of lush green golf courses, thickets of palms, and forked cacti – coupled with its desolate geography made it a playground for experimentation. Bathed in relentless sunshine, Palm Springs became the place – as Joan Didion wrote – for dreaming the golden dream. In The Desert Modernists: The Architects Who Envisioned Midcentury Modern Palm Springs, architect Brad Dunning described Palm Springs as “… one of the most emblematic American towns, a truly and clearly crystalline document of its time, a time when America blossomed optimistically and boldly explored in every direction, from industry and science to social reform and design. Those Mid-century, post World War II aspirations and experiments,” he continues, “are evident here on our sandscape.”

Desert Modernism is often said to have evolved out of the downtown Oasis Hotel,
designed in 1923 by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank. It had elements of Art Deco and 1920s Moderne, but was built entirely from concrete using a slip-form technique, unusual for the time. It prompted a new way of looking at shapes, materials and architecture. The first wave proper of this new style was led by Richard Neutra, an architect widely credited with shaping Modernism in the Coachella Valley. Born in Vienna, he moved to the US in 1923, where he first worked in Los Angeles, and honed a vision for residential architecture that fused art, landscape, and functionality. In 1937, he designed Miller House for socialite Grace Lewis Miller. Neutra believed in customisation, and between August 1936 and February 1937, he and Miller exchanged more than 50 letters, in which she detailed her habits and routines. She wanted an airy, open plan home with a studio for her to teach exercise. The end result was a house that exuded simplicity and functionality.

“For an architect who had never built anything in the desert, it was perfectly thought out,” wrote Miller House‘s current owner Catherine Miller (no relation) in an online essay.1 “A panel of north facing textured glass windows provided natural light and privacy. The wide overhangs that extended out over all the south and west facing windows provided much-needed shade from the sun, and a plethora of windows and doors offered plenty of cross-ventilation. All in all, it was a perfect utilitarian space and measured just over 1,100 sq ft.”

Neutra’s pièce de résistance, however, was Kaufmann House. Completed the same year as Twin Palms and immortalised in Slim Aaron’s 1970 photograph Poolside Gossip, it is universally revered as a masterpiece. The home, commissioned by department store mogul Edgar J Kaufman Sr, is most significant for its “structural inventiveness, elegant detailing, and volume-space relationships,” as well as the use of “industrial materials and new technologies servicing an indoor-outdoor ethos”. In the 1990s, Kaufmann House underwent an extensive restoration, and is now registered as a National Historic Landmark.

By the early 1950s, another visionary was making waves in the desert. Swiss architect Albert Frey, who had worked in Paris with Le Corbusier, had settled permanently in Palm Springs in 1939. He created the Kocher-Samson Building (1934) on Canyon Drive, and later, the iconic and oft-photographed Palm Springs City Hall (1952-1957). In 1964, he completed the seminal Frey House II, his second residence in the area. Built into the side of San Jacinto Mountain using a steel frame and great sheaths of glass, the 74 m² house had the highest elevation of any residence in the city at the time. On reviewing Frey’s plans, building regulators at Palm Springs City Hall called them “crazy,” but eventually gave him approval. Today, the home’s sweeping views of the Coachella Valley are renowned, and it is recognised as one of the first residential buildings in the world that was designed to have minimal impact on the environment.

As ever more architects contributed to the evolution of Desert Modernism, including A. Quincy Jones and William F. Cody (of whom Williams once said, “Where I brought the desert into architecture, Cody brought 5th Avenue into the desert.”), the movement had a knock on effect on Californian culture. Properly developer Joseph Eichler, who was originally a butter salesman, created subdivision homes in Mid-century Modern style. His distinctive structures challenged and reinvented the notion of what a residence should look like. Between 1949 and 1966, his company built more than 11,000 homes across California, including in Palm Springs, shaping the landscape, and making modern architecture available to the general public, not just A-listers and big businesses. Today, Eichler Homes, as they became known, are highly sought after. Another innovator was Donald Wexler, who was the first to use steel in residential architecture. Wexler worked on a smaller scale than the Neutras and Cody’s of the world, but made a lasting impact with his steel houses (Wexler Steel House number 2, 1962, pictured). He also designed the first building visitors encounter when arriving in Palm Springs: the International Airport.

Today, Desert Modernism continues to thrive. In 2009, architect Jim Jennings completed Desert House in Palm Springs, a strikingly modern, unassuming residence that drew from Mid-century principles. Palm Springs Modernism Week, held annually in February, attracts architecture aficionados and visitors from around the world, and features events including guided tours, films and lectures. “Our architecture is our outdoor art,” writes Brad Dunning of Desert Modernism’s perennial appeal. “Garnish and accent with a couple of palms or an ocotillo, and you’ve got the perfect Palm Springs cocktail.”

Desert Modernism
Desert Modernism
Desert Modernism

Further reading