Modern Architecture in Palm Springs

Some of the world's most forward-looking architects designed and constructed buildings around Palm Springs between 1940 and 1970. Described these days as mid-century modern—you'll also see the term "desert modernism" used—these structures, also popular elsewhere in California in the years after World War II, are ideal for desert living because they minimize the separation between indoors and outdoors. Houses with glass exterior walls are common, as are oversize flat roofs that provide shade from the sun. The style is also notable for elegant informality, simple landscaping, and clean lines that often mirror the shapes of surrounding topography.

Noteworthy examples include three buildings that are part of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway complex, built in the 1960s. Albert Frey, a Swiss-born architect, designed the soaring A-frame Tramway Gas Station, visually echoing the pointed peaks behind it. Frey also created the glass-walled Valley Station, from which you get your initial view of the Coachella Valley before you board the tram to the Mountain Station, designed by E. Stewart Williams.

Frey, a Palm Springs resident for more than 60 years, also designed the indoor-outdoor City Hall, Fire Station No. 1, and numerous houses. His second home, atop stilts on a hill above the Palm Springs Art Museum, affords a sweeping Coachella Valley view through glass walls. The classy Movie Colony Hotel, one of Frey's first desert designs, might seem like a typical 1950s motel, with rooms surrounding a swimming pool, but when it was built in 1935, it was years ahead of its time.

Donald Wexler, who honed his vision with Los Angeles architect Richard Neutra, brought new ideas about the use of materials to the desert, where he teamed up with William Cody on projects such as the terminal at the Palm Springs Airport. Wexler also experimented with steel framing back in 1961, but the metal proved too expensive. Seven of his steel-frame houses can be seen in a neighborhood off Indian Canyon and Frances drives.

The Palm Springs Modern Committee website has lots of information and resources, including a downloadable app (psmodcom.org/mid-century-modern-tour-app) that guides you to the most interesting buildings. Note, too, that the desert communities celebrate the Palm Springs "look" during mid-February's Modernism Week (modernismweek.com), an 11-day event featuring lectures, films, and home and garden tours. A shorter preview week happens in October.

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