How Palm Springs Keeps The Modernist Dream Alive

Form follows function, but both remain fabulous.

by Elyssa Goodman
palm springs modernist aesthetic

On a Sunday afternoon in February, I am sitting with my legs dangling over a cliff and I couldn’t be happier. The location is Palm Springs, California, at the Frey House II. Designed by architect Albert Frey and first completed in 1964, the 800-square-foot house (with an additional 300-square-foot room completed in 1967) is nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains. And I do mean in the mountains — the house is built around a giant boulder, which enters the home and is sealed off from the outside by custom cut glass. Walking through the home, you get an exquisite understanding of not just what modernist design is, but how architecture at its best serves the people that use it, the environment in which it resides, and lives as art itself.

When Palm Springs began to become a playground for the glamorous in the 1930s, “Mink and sable coats were sometimes seen worn over bathing suits in the late afternoon when the sun dipped behind Mt. San Jacinto,” reported local newspaper, the Desert Sun. It was, and remains, a travel destination, a part-time home for many, with about only 40,000 full-time residents. As it grew from its Western, desert roots into a chic, luxury getaway, it drew architects who created, for themselves and others, the style for which the city has become known today.

Prior to the 1930s, the architecture in the area had mostly been a style known as Spanish Mission Revival, inspired by California’s history and environment to that point. By the 1930s, however, the thought process behind design had changed. Architects from Europe like Richard Neutra, the aforementioned Albert Frey, and Rudolph Schindler began to make California their home, bringing with them their influences from what was known as the International Style of architecture. These kinds of buildings made extensive use of glass and steel, clean lines, and open space — they were buildings meant for the enjoyment of living. Modernist design followed suit.

While when we think of midcentury modern design, we often jump first to the splashy, bright, vintage-toned colors of yore — the atomic age, if you will, straight out of The Jetsons, and pristinely so. But modernism in architecture is noted for its dedication to “form follows function,” where a building needed to work first and then to be beautiful. In a place as extreme as the desert, it only makes sense that modernist design took off. Indeed, the buildings needed to work: They had to shield from the desert’s scorching heat at the day’s peak while also keeping it cool and revealing the area’s gorgeous landscapes. This branch of design in particular became known as “Desert Modernism.”

At the Frey House II during Modernism Week in February, an annual celebration of modernist design in Palm Springs, all of these ideas are at work, both inside and outside the home. There are long panes of glass in lieu of walls in most of the house that overlook the entire city of Palm Springs below and the mountain itself — magically, a family of bighorn sheep totter by the rocks as we explore the house. Seats are carved next to the concrete forming the pool and into chaises just below the bedroom, where my friend and I dangle our feet. The corrugated metal roof catches the light of the pool and twinkles in the sunlight. A light switch is built into the boulder. The curtains, a soft yellow and soft blue, match the desert’s Encilia flowers and the sky, respectively. There is, of course, no television, and who needs it? I sit quietly and look out the window and, even though I’m on a tour, we all seem to pause and reflect at the same time. We listen to the wind rushing, the birds chirping, the water from the pool quietly lapping.

There is no facet of living here that Albert Frey did not take into account when forming the home, from its temperatures to its views, and the goal was always to remember the home’s connection to nature. Many homes like Frey’s are open to the public during Modernism Week, and the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation is dedicated to making sure masterpieces like these are maintained for the future.

Frey’s viewpoints were not uncommon for public spaces at the time, either. Architect E. Stewart Williams designed the Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan Association, opened in 1960. The building features glass walls and then, on the western side of the building, screens of anodized aluminum protect from the sun during the hottest moments of the day. The inside is sleek and peaceful, with a welcoming openness. Many of the public buildings in Palm Springs have undergone what’s been known as adaptive reuse, which reimagine the buildings’ purposes without tearing them down. Today, this former bank is the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture & Design Center. And the reuse is intelligent, too — the bank’s former vault is now the gift shop, massive doors and all. Another example of this adaptive reuse is the Palm Springs Visitor Center, the former Tramway Gas Station co-designed by Albert Frey and Robson Chambers. Its arrow-like roof points toward the sky and welcomes design nerds like myself from far and wide.

On another tour that takes us up and down Palm Springs’s main drags, Palm Canyon Drive and Indian Canyon Drive, I am delighted, weirdly, that the bus stops every few hundred feet. This happens because almost every building up and down these streets is a figure of midcentury modern design, whether it was an apartment building, a department store, a post office, a bank, a gas station, you name it. They were designed by these great architects like Frey, Herbert Burns, Hugh Kaptur, and many others, and the premise becomes, well, why not?

I think often while I am in Palm Springs of what my friend David once said to me about public spaces being palaces for the people. Why shouldn’t your post office, your grocery store, your gas station be beautiful? You have to interact with them every day, sometimes for things that are not so pleasant. What if your experience of being there could be just a little lovelier? And really, the same thing is true of one’s home. Form can follow function, yes, but neither has to be sacrificed in the process, and Palm Springs’ Desert Modernism continues to remind us of that.