Inside Palm Springs’ modernist marvels
As Palm Springs Modernism Week kicks off this Valentine’s Day until February 24, board the Frey tram for the annual celebration of mid-century architecture and design in the Coachella Valley.
A reverent murmur passes through the group on the lemon-yellow double-decker bus as it comes to a halt by the gates of the Kaufmann House. Designed by Richard Neutra in 1946 for the eponymous Pittsburgh entrepreneur, the home is the myth of “Martini Modernism” brought to life. Sunhats are raised, cameras brandished – even decades after its creation and countless cultural references later, this icon of Californian Modernism still holds an unbridled fascination for those who get to see it in real life.
The charm is partly attributable to the sheer quality of the design. Neutra’s elegant, light touch in the application of volumes and material, as well as the way in which he skilfully arranges the different parts of the building and embeds them in the surrounding stone and cactus garden. However, the fact that the house still seems untouched by the ravages of time (helped by a comprehensive renovation by Marmol Radziner Architects during the 1990s) can account for a large portion of the visitors’ enthusiasm. Sitting on board a tourist bus almost seven decades after the legendary Palm Springs of the 1940s and 1950s, the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood desert playground are suddenly so tangible you can hear the faint clink of mid-century Blenko glassware.
The annual Palm Springs Modernism Week, which takes place in February every year, woos architecture fans from all over the world precisely because it offers a glimpse into the mindset of the Modernist movement that goes far beyond a simple visit to the famous buildings. Of course these buildings, which can be experienced in incomparable numbers and density here, are there to see all year round, but if you set out on your own to visit villas such as the Kaufmann House, Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palm Estate, or the homes of Albert Frey (the locations of which, incidentally, are pinpointed precisely on a folding map provided by the Palm Springs Modern Committee) you will often find yourself facing view-blocking hedges and garden fences, or even having to spot the buildings from afar due to their locations in private streets.
By contrast, visitors to Modernism Week experience the architectural icons up close, both inside and out, at cocktail parties, receptions, and guided tours, often in the company of the current owners or even the original architects themselves. Indeed, the houses are not museums, rather they are lived in and used. For the guests, architectural history comes to life when, for example, fashion designer Trina Turk, dressed in a bright-coloured kaftan, guides them through her streamlined Ship of the Desert house from 1936, the interior of which she has furnished with a cool mix of vintage items and pieces from her own home collection.
Designed by architect William “Bill” Krisel, Ship of the Desert house was the beginning of a new age for architectural design in Palm Springs. Teaming up with Robert Alexander from the Alexander Construction Company in the 1950s and 1960s, the duo began building more affordable versions of his designs.
They termed it “Modernism for the Masses” as couples and families from the American middle class wanted a share in the leisurely lifestyle that the Hollywood stars had been celebrating in this small desert city since the 1930s; it was considered incredibly chic to spend the winter here in the pleasant climate where Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Charlie Chaplin all had homes. Elvis Presley himself elevated the celebrity status of Bill Krisel’s architecture – and caused an outbreak of hysteria in laid-back Palm Springs – when he and new bride Priscilla checked into the House of Tomorrow in 1967 for their honeymoon, which Krisel had designed for the Alexander Construction Company as a prototype of future forms of living.
Now, a younger clientele from LA is finding that these single-storey homes – boasting floor-to-ceiling windows, inner garden courtyards and varying roof shapes and colour schemes – make for stylish, yet affordable places to live. Nevertheless, it is first and foremost the famous villas by Neutra, Lautner and Frey that hold a particularly magical attraction for visitors. And events like the cocktail reception on the terrace of John Lautner’s Elrod House from 1968, in which the legendary pool scene of James Bond’s Diamonds Are Forever was filmed, sell out as soon as the programme for the next Modernism Week goes online each autumn.
Those who are lucky enough to obtain one of the $150 tickets not only get exclusive access to the spectacular Lautner building, which is otherwise inaccessibly located in a guarded private road on a hill high above Palm Springs, but also an unforgettable party as the sun goes down with cool drinks, DJs by the pool and a breathtaking view of the Coachella Valley – and later, when it gets dark, the vast, starry sky. The celestial glow giving the Sonoran desert a lunar quality, shining a light on the mid-century homes that look fresh from the Space Age in which they were born.
Palm Springs Modernism Week runs from February 14-24, 2019. Tickets for 2020 and information can be found here.