Entry
Desert Modern Walking Tour: Palm Springs

Desert Modern Walking Tour: Palm Springs

Friday, December 16, 2016 | | Editorials

The simplicity of Desert Modern architecture finds a natural home in Palm Springs, California. Image: Mark English Architects


Visionary. Dramatic geography. Simple elegance. For someone who’s never experienced Desert Modern in its natural habitat, these words take on new meaning after a visit to Palm Springs, CA, widely considered one of the best living collections of contemporary Mid-Century Modern architecture – all in one spot.

Mark English noted how the buildings responded to climate. Palm Springs is hot but dry, with expansive outdoor vistas of distant, majestic mountains seen across a wide-flat plain under a clear blue sky. Apart from irrigation, the natural terrain is stark and austere, but never boring despite its apparent emptiness.

  • With enough shading, the buildings don’t need to be over-conditioned.
  • The clear sunlight lends itself to visual effects on textured walls. Other textures from rocks and gravel echo the surrounding landscape in color and feel.
  • The lack of precipitation, salt corrosion, or strong winds also is a plus, as it allows for painted steel and open expanses of flat roof without danger of things rotting, rusting, or flying off. And, the gravel landscaping doesn’t get overgrown.
  • The houses are less exposed and more private than a typical “glass box” where every aspect of the inhabitants’ personal lives is on constant display for all their neighbors.
  • It’s making a statement, but comfort is part of the equation more so than ostentation.

A lot of this wouldn’t look as good in a rainy, cloudy climate. New York City has a few similar-looking buildings, and they look good, but sometimes a bit alien given the surrounding buildings. Here the buildings are spaced farther apart, not crammed up against 200-year-old masonry, and the eternal sunshine improves color rendering and visual definition.

Architects include Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Donald Wexler, Albert Frey, William Krisel, William F. Cody, John Porter Clark, and E. Stewart Williams. Although some buildings were commissioned or acquired by celebrities and wealthy elites, many landmark homes were also built by developers George and Robert Alexander in order to attract middle-income buyers. Remarkable architecture also includes a number of public buildings, such as the Post Office, the City Hall, several banks, as well as the Palm Springs Art Museum.

If you’re inspired to visit, check out this handy map, take a paid guided tour, or go for Modernism Week on Feb 16-26, 2017.

Tramway Gas Station

The Palm Springs Visitor Center began life as the Tramway Gas Station in 1965.

The Tramway Gas Station, architect Albert Frey, built 1965. Now housing the Palm Springs Visitor’s Center. Image: Mark English Architects

The Tramway Gas Station, architect Albert Frey, built 1965. Now housing the Palm Springs Visitor’s Center. Image: Mark English Architects

Slide Show

Palm Springs Art Museum, Architecture and Design Center

The Palm Springs Art Museum has several buildings and a long history. This particular building, the Architecture and Design Center, began life as a savings and loan designed by E. Stewart Williams in 1961.

Entrance to the Palm Springs Architecture and Design Center. Succulents are ubiquitous in every landscape in Palm Springs. Image: Mark English Architects

Entrance to the Palm Springs Architecture and Design Center. Succulents are ubiquitous in every landscape in Palm Springs. Image: Mark English Architects

Slide Show

Alexander Steel Houses

The Alexander Steel Houses were built by George and Robert Alexander, in collaboration with architect Donald Wexler. The houses were intended for middle-income buyers who wanted a getaway home outside of Los Angeles. The price of steel rose, making these homes impractical after only a few were built.

The Alexander Steel Houses in Palm Springs, CA show typical Desert Modern features: Simple landscaping, generous overhangs. Note overhang over strip windows as an alternative to the “glass box”. Image: Mark English Architects

The Alexander Steel Houses in Palm Springs, CA show typical Desert Modern features: Simple landscaping, generous overhangs. Note overhang over strip windows as an alternative to the “glass box”. Image: Mark English Architects

Slide Show

Kaufmann Desert House

One of the most-photographed houses in Palm Springs is the Kaufmann Desert House, designed by Richard Neutra in 1946. In 1992 it was restored by Marmol Radziner + Associates for a private owner.

At the Kaufmann Desert House, the landscaping takes precedence over the house, which preserves privacy. This house gets so much foot traffic that they put up a “no climbing” sign. Image: Mark English Architects

At the Kaufmann Desert House, the landscaping takes precedence over the house, which preserves privacy. This house gets so much foot traffic that they put up a “no climbing” sign. Image: Mark English Architects

Slide Show

Robo Lights Sculpture Garden

Kenny Irwin, Jr. is an artist in Palm Springs who has been creating art on a private estate since 1986. The photos shown below are only a small portion of the display.

Sculptures by Kenny Irwin, Jr. in Robo Lights Park in Palm Springs, CA. Image: Mark English Architects

Sculptures by Kenny Irwin, Jr. in Robo Lights Park in Palm Springs, CA. Image: Mark English Architects

Slide Show

Palm Springs City Hall

Palm Springs City Hall was designed in a joint effort by Albert Frey’s architectural team( Frey, Clark, Chambers, and Williams) in 1962. Albert Frey had apprenticed with Le Corbusier before emigrating to the U.S. in 1928.

Palm Springs City Hall building. A circular opening in the entry shade pavilion allows palm trees to co-exist. Image: Mark English Architects

Palm Springs City Hall building. A circular opening in the entry shade pavilion allows palm trees to co-exist. Image: Mark English Architects

Slide Show

Former Coachella Savings and Loan Building

The building below, designed by E. Stewart Williams, was originally the Coachella Savings and Loan. It is now a Chase Bank.

The former Coachella Savings and Loan building. Image: Mark English Architects

The former Coachella Savings and Loan building. Image: Mark English Architects

Conclusion

There’s plenty more to see in Palm Springs. Both the art and the architecture are well worth the trip.

Be Sociable, Share!


About the author
 Rebecca Firestone has been working in the Bay Area since 1998 as a technical writer, business content developer, architectural filing lady, marketing director, and sorcerer’s apprentice.


Leave a Reply

Read previous post:
Skylight Case Study

Late-breaking waterproofing concerns arise on a job site, after construction is already underway. The power of hand drawing aids in...

Close