During the mid 20th-century, the urbane sophisticates ventured to Palm Springs in search of a pleasant and uncomplicated lifestyle, and brought with them a demand for tasteful homes. This demand was perfectly matched to the goals of modernist architects who valued the simplicity of machine-age functionalism, and the result was a fresh residential architecture uniquely tailored to the opposite demands of extreme climates and easy living. Even the most experimental of these houses became hugely influential, published in magazines such as Arts + Architecture, House Beautiful and Life, as the epitome of informal elegance and timeless style. Today, Palm Springs is widely renowned as an oasis of distinctive modern architecture.
Looking at these residential examples today, “Palm Springs Modern” is more than a mere aesthetic. In fact, these homes were surprisingly innovative, not just tailored to fit into the desert region but also constructed from light yet enduring materials. Against the prevalent heaviness of the Spanish Colonial style, as early as 1939, John Porter Clark for example envisioned a home that would float on the landscape. Raised on stilts and constructed of industrial off-the-shelf materials such as pipe and pre-cut wood, the Clark House not only cleverly integrated the car and the home, but it also took advantage of the shifting angles of the desert sun for natural heating and cooling. Its low-cost and pragmatic sensibility lent itself quickly as a precedent for the wood-and-steel frameworks that would soon characterize the Palm Springs Modern houses.
These simple frame structures in turn allowed for the use of large glass windows to maximize views, and sliding panels to promote the easy connection between indoors and out. After WWII, Edgar Kaufmann, the visionary client behind Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, commissioned Viennese-born architect, Richard Neutra, to design a vacation home on a challenging slopeside lot with a commanding view of the desert. Neutra responded quickly with “a machine in the garden”, a set of radiant-heat slabs under bare geometric frames that literally allowed the house “to breathe”. With its lack of ornamentation and airy main spaces, the Kaufmann House still stands today as a perfect archetype of a stripped-down environmental sensitivity that is utterly chic.
The innovative use of prefabricated materials was not, however, limited to the frames of the Palm Springs Modern houses. The prolific use of prefabricated panels begun by Albert Frey in 1940 quickly achieved the dual convenience of efficiency and economy. Rather than use wood on exteriors that would expand and disintegrate, Frey chose corrugated metal, and found that it provided a strong cooling envelope. By 1947, in houses by E. Stewart Williams and William F. Cody, prefabricated panels and sheathing that were less expensive to install and replace than the tradition lath-and-stucco protected the interiors from prolonged glare and exposure while “capturing” warm air between the panels. Inspired by the use of Moroccan elements in modern design, William Krisel of the Alexander Company used decorative concrete blocks to create a single protective façade that blocked both sun and traffic. Later, in the Palevsky House, architect Craig Ellwood used prefabricated metal panels to punctuate the entire length of the house, creating a rhythmic envelope of transparency and opacity that kept the rest spaces of the home private, cave-like and cool. By using a credo of steel, glass and concrete as a common-sense response to building in the desert, Palm Springs Modern epitomized the possibilities of the machine a’habiter. And, because of the strong pattern and texture of the materials, the visual results were stunning.
Indeed, without the functional considerations of the extreme desert environment, the Palm Springs Modern style may have never come to be. Simple structures resulted in clean lines and uncomplicated volumes. The use of large glass and sliding panels resulted in a sense of easy living. Prefabricated panels gave the facades a swinging rhythm of open and shut. And, inspired by the elemental landscape of the Coachella valley and mountains, Palm Springs Modern has emerged as a quintessential balance between spare interiors and strong textural elements such as decorative concrete block, rough-hewn stones and corrugated metal.
Today, we can recognize that modernism fits well within the desert. Its volumes and lines speak to the elemental nature of the sky and the stars, its stripped-down ornamentation to the stark beauty of the landscape. Even the extreme temperature fluctuations, considered an architectural limitation by many, encouraged a powerful use of materials, construction and geometric form. Indeed, the desert environment is challenging in a way that brings out the very best in functionalism.
by Dora Epstein-Jones