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Building on the Harsh Terrain: Modernism in the Desert
Desert Visionaries
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Desert Visionaries

Albert Frey
albert frey

The desert landscape offered a palette for an unusually talented group of architects and designers who chose to live and work in Palm Springs. Some selected the region for the healthy desert lifestyle, some for the proximity to Los Angeles and the opportunity to work for high profile clients, and others for the steady work found in an up and coming resort community. Palm Springs continued development as a leisure center with transportation advances including commercial airlines and modern road building allowing for resort building in the remote locale. The European-influenced architects of the 1930’s and 1940’s brought their international sensibilities to the desert and worked with the challenges of often limited budgets, hot days, cold nights, extreme summers with intense sunlight and an arid environment. This list is but a sampling of the architects at work at the time.

Aluminaire House - 1931
aluminaire house

Albert Frey

Among the first Modernist-influenced architects to live and practice in Palm Springs was Albert Frey, who began working in Palm Springs in the 1930’s and had a lasting influence on the architectural style of the region. His houses, sheathed in corrugated metal, moved boldly away from the prevailing stucco coverings. The Swiss born Frey, who trained briefly under Le Corbusier, left what he saw as the stifling conventions of the Beaux-Arts architectural environment to come to America to focus on affordable design with the latest technologies. Some of his early commissions in Southern California include a canvas covered miniature golf course and a roadside Downyflake Donut Shop—vernacular architecture that strayed far from the Corbusier canon. Frey helped design the Aluminaire House for a 1931 building arts exhibition as a prototype of a prefabricated home. He came to Palm Springs in 1934 to design the Kocher-Samson office building and began a prolific career with numerous iconic private and public commissions. Frey incorporated natural materials into his designs, going so far as to build his private residence around a large boulder set into a hillside. He continued the use of aluminum for roofs and overhangs, owing to its superior ability to shed the desert heat. Frey’s most notable contributions to the region, many with his partner John Porter Clark, include the Desert Aerial Tramway Station and the North Shore Yacht Club on the Salton Sea. Frey also designed the Palm Springs City Hall and the Desert Hospital. Frey introduced a vision of desert architecture that differed from Frank Lloyd Wright. Instead of being cavelike oases, protected from the sun by courtyards and gardens and trees, his houses were more like ‘tents staked out in the desert’—his second house, set amidst a rubble moraine, provided a perfect example. (Stern/Hess, p.34)

Kaufmann House - 1946
kaufmann house

Richard Neutra

Among the most influential of Modernist architects of the 20th century, Neutra gained his first residential commission in Palm Springs in 1937 for the Grace Miller House, which was featured in the 1938 Museum of Modern Art traveling exhibition on Modern Architecture. Neutra soon went on to create one of his most famous designs, a house commissioned by Edgar Kaufmann Sr, the man who ordered up Fallingwater from Frank Lloyd Wright. Kaufmann considered a design by Wright for his Palm Springs retreat, but decided that Neutra’s approach suited him better for a January getaway spot. Neutra looked at the desert landscape as otherworldly, and saw the house as a lush oasis in the desert. Neutra’s design balanced the heavy stone and masses of concrete with copious amounts of glass and exposed metal framing. The Kaufmann house did not sink into or grow out of the desert, but appeared to have landed on the space intact, replete with prefabricated parts and a pool. Neutra designed other homes in Palm Springs, incorporating his signature spiderleg supports in the Maslon House at Tamarisk Country Club.

Palm Springs Airport - 1965
palm springs airport

Donald Wexler

Wexler was equally adept at upscale residential projects such as the Dinah Shore house and large scale commercial projects including schools and tract homes. He designed the iconic Palm Springs airport, the first introduction to Modernist design for many visitors to the city. Wexler epitomized a school of thought that emphasized technological solutions to social problems. Building with steel, using pre-fabricated elements, and employing designs that could be built inexpensively, he worked to bring sophisticated design in an affordable package. His steel homes for the Alexander Company gave affordable options to those looking for Modernist design, both then and now. The houses offered flowing spaces, indoor/outdoor balance and Modernist emphasis on displaying structural elements. The Alexander homes were built in sections in the factory and shipped to the site, where a concrete pad awaited, and assembled by trained contractors in a matter of days. Houses were given individualized rooflines and came in seven models to prevent a monotonous streetscape.

Palm Springs Spa - 1958
palm springs spa

William Cody
William Cody moved to Palm Springs in 1944 in part due to his asthma and began a career that impacted the course of Palm Springs architecture for decades. He was responsible for the clubhouse at the renowned El Dorado at Indian Wells golf club, and was among the first to put houses on the golf course, an idea that changed the way people thought of resort living and one that influenced golf course design for generations. He combined flat roofs, adobe walls, tile floors and teak to combat the oppressive heat. He designed the Palm Springs Library and the Palm Springs Spa in the 1950’s. Cody was known for pushing construction materials to the limits. He used the thinnest beams, the lightest roofs, and tested tolerances of materials for the sake of design.

Coachella Valley S&L - 1961
coachella s&l

E. Stewart Williams
Among the most significant structures designed by Williams was a home for Frank Sinatra, one of his first projects in the area. Originally commissioned by Sinatra in 1946 to be finished in six months as a Georgian mansion with bricks, columns and a stone balustrade, Williams convinced Sinatra that grand could be done in a more desert appropriate format. Noted for the whimsical pool in the shape of a grand piano, the house included a raised dining platform, custom sound and recording equipment and a motorized glass sliding door that opened the living area to the pool. Williams gained further renown as he went on to design commercial buildings including the Coachellea Valley Savings and Loan(1961) and the Palm Springs Desert Museum. (1976) (Stern/Hess, p. 107)

Bob and Delores Hope House - 1978
bob hope house
John Lautner
With his signature works arriving at the end of the Modernist heyday, Lautner is known for some of the most daring residences in Palm Springs, including the famed Elrod house. By the late 1960’s Arthur Elrod was renowned as a designer who renovated and sold homes throughout Southern California and was named one of America’s top ten designers by Time magazine. His work was featured in Architectural Digest and he made a point of convincing clients to spend generously on their second homes. He commissioned architect John Lautner to build him a home to be used extensively for entertaining. The result would be referred to by Lautner as “a million dollar sculpture” and would be like no other home before it. The house featured extensive Modern furnishings including a 28 foot sofa and a circular, arching concrete roof. The house was defined by its curved walls, extensive glass and concrete, and views of the valley and the snow capped mountains. Bob and Delores Hope liked the house so much they commissioned Lautner to build them a similar home on a larger scale. Lautner is also known for the innovative Desert Hot Springs hotel, designed in 1947.
Building on the Harsh Terrain: Modernism in the Desert