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Early Palm Springs:
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Building on the Harsh Terrain: Modernism in the Desert
Desert Visionaries
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Building on the Harsh Terrain:
Modernism in the Desert

Elrod House - 1968
elrod from above

Beginning in the 1930's, Palm Springs offered up a group of architects that would create a signature style of Modernism, suited to the recreational and living needs of a wealthy clientele in a challenging construction environment. “There were sterling exponents of freeform organic architecture and specialists in steel. There were big commercial firms and mainstream professionals and academics. There were architects involved in mass-produced housing and architects with generalized practices who designed churches, homes, schools, restaurants, and motels.” (Stern/Hess, p.17) Some blended their creations into the desert—the Elrod house by John Lautner is practically burrowed into the ground. Some rested their houses to make the steel and glass float above the stone, as is the case with many of the designs by Albert Frey and John Porter Clark. Richard Neutra applied his architectural principles unyieldingly, creating linear forms that rested on the landscape. Each architect had his own interelrod interiorpretations that provided an incredible breadth of architecture in one place, designed in one brief era. Architects working in Palm Springs responded to the desires of their clients. People wanted to be outdoors spending time at the pool or entertaining at the bar, fitting the notion of a retreat. The climate was perfect for winter evening fires. Beautiful views of the varied mountain ranges were abundant. Sliding glass doors and walls allowed changing configurations to invite the outdoors in or keep the heat at bay. Large but sleek overhangs provided shade cover, creating outdoor living rooms.

Albert Frey House
frey house

The architecture of the region diverged from the more austere international style that spawned it, in part due to the desert environment and topography. The searing desert heat was mitigated by shaded overhangs and the use of stone and tile that were beautiful to look at and functional as temperature regulators. Other rules of desert architecture applied. The use of wood was limited as the constant expansion and contraction was not suitable for framing glass and it breaks down too quickly. Stucco and plaster, the foundations of Spanish style architecture, crack in the heat and create maintenance problems that were too unwieldy for the vacationers populating the homes.

With most of the early residential structures designed as second homes for clients with means in a previously unbuilt area, owners and architects were unconstrained by precedent and tradition and free to invent and explore ideas that may have been too daring for their primary residences. taliesen westSpanish settlement did not have to be echoed here. Architects worked to rewrite the rules of what could be luxurious and stunning as they moved away from "sloping tile roofs, wrought iron grilles over balconies, arched windows, plaster walls, and gloomy interiors. In came a lightweight frame of steel, floor to ceiling glass windows and sliding doors, flat roofs, and thin beams.”(Stern/Hess, p.19) Talented architects were given an opportunity to innovate in the wake of design developments in Europe as the international style took hold, and in the shadow of Wright, who applied his principles to a desert environment at Taliesin West in Arizona in the mid-1930’s.


Gomorrah in Eden:
Hollywood's Weekend Home