Palm Springs — A Modernist Desert Oasis
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Albert Frey, one of the most important modern architects of our time and widely known as a father of Desert Modernism, lived and worked in Palm Springs, California, for almost 65 years. In 1934, the Swiss-born architect came to Palm Springs to work on a project with architect A. Lawrence Kocher, whose brother needed an office for his real estate/insurance business.
The Kocher-Samson Building, as it is known today, is considered Palm Springs’ first modernist, international-style structure, and it still stands in its original location. During World War II, Palm Springs served as an Army air base. There weren’t many people living in the area at that
time, but the Salton Sea — which formed in 1905 when a stretch of the Colorado River accidentally flooded the area — was a huge draw. It is still the largest lake in California, and today it is highly saline. Attracted by the California
desert landscapes and especially the Salton Sea, Frey relocated permanently to Palm Springs in 1939.
As a passionate sailor, he joined the Yacht Club at Salton Sea, and Palm Springs slowly grew into a vacation destination for the rich and famous. In 1959, Frey’s design for the North Shore Yacht Club on the Salton Sea was built, and the club quickly became more than just a window to the sea. With its outstanding style and beautiful cylindric window façade, the club attracted popular members such as the Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, and Desi Arnaz.
Palm Springs is located in Coachella Valley, a seismically active area in between two fault lines. Key to Frey’s remarkable vision was the transformation of the sometimes harsh environment into a comfortable, harmonious living experience in tune with nature. He is responsible for pioneering an architecture that adapted to the desert’s conditions. For Frey, the widely varied topography of the desert called for a flexible, open-minded approach for each project. His buildings achieve a dynamic yet subtle balance between straight and curved lines, with an aesthetically pleasing design borne of functional concerns.
In the 1960s, Frey and then partner Robson C. Chambers used readily available, machine-made industrial products, like ribbed steel panels and concrete blocks, to create patterns and texture but also to reduce construction cost and later maintenance. Materials like these were used to build the iconic Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Station (1960–63). The windows running the length of each side of the station provide a breathtaking panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. Opened in 1963, the aerial tramway is the largest in the world and takes visitors from the hot Coachella Valley to the snowy top of the San Jacinto Peak, which is the highest peak in the San Jacinto Mountains. In 2000, rotating cars were added to allow for stunning views of the Chino Canyon and the pristine wilderness of the Mt. San Jacinto State Park during the 10-minute journey.
The Tramway Gas Station was built shortly after, and it was originally an Enco service station in Palm Springs. The gas station was named after the tramway because of its location at the foot of Tramway Road, which leads to the base of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Frey and Chambers designed the building with a distinctive wedge-shaped canopy. The building is a prime example of modernism and shouldn’t be missed. The station was sold to the city in 2002 and today serves as the Palm Springs Visitors Center.
Frey’s first house in Palm Springs, Frey House I (1940), no longer exists. It was located on 1150 Paseo del Miramar and had a view of the San Jacinto Mountains to the west. Critic David Gebhard called the stunning structure “Frey’s Flash Gordon House.” A circular second-story bedroom with porthole windows was shaded by exterior metal cylinders, which gave the house a space-age look, especially with its hanging stairway and dining table. Frey used “wing walls” that projected into the landscape and extended the building out into the desert floor. The house was sheathed in corrugated aluminum and cement board, which were tinted pale pink and green on the interior because Frey wanted the colors to tie in with the surrounding nature. When the structure was bulldozed by a developer, it was a huge loss for Palm Springs.
Photographs of the house can be seen at the excellent Palm Springs Art Museum. Today, the museum owns and manages Frey’s second house, which is perched on a steep, craggy mountainside. The rectangular structure of Frey House II (built in 1963–64) incorporates full-wall sliding glass doors along three sides, revealing a spectacular panoramic view of Palm Springs. Frey showcased his adoration of the surrounding site on multiple levels, and he integrated the existing rocks into the building. Long before building this house, Frey repeatedly visited the site to study it, and he used sundials to analyze sun angles and shadows throughout the year. At 200 feet above the desert floor, the house had the highest elevation of any residence in Palm Springs at the time. Decades after his death in 1998, Frey is still regarded as one of the pioneers of the area’s remarkable architecture. Frey House II and its unique features are often cited as the visual definition of Desert Modernism.
Over the years, Frey completed numerous residential, commercial, and public commissions — in partnership or collaboration with such Palm Springs architects as John Porter Clark, Chambers, and E. Stewart Williams — and his work includes some of Palm Springs’ most notable landmarks. To protect Frey’s work, 14 of his buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, events like Modernism Week spotlight Palm Springs’ midcentury architecture, drawing visitors from all over the world with open houses, parties, lectures, and city walks. The city also hosts an international film festival every January — after all, Palm Springs always was and still is a popular retreat for Hollywood’s elite.
Opened in 1959, the Riviera Hotel— which has hosted such celebrities as Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Cher, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, and Jay Z — offers a unique design, where rock star glam décor meets midcentury charm. With its beautiful gardens and wet bar, the hotel effortlessly combines comfort and serenity. The Ace Hotel in downtown Palm Springs is a modern desert oasis with stunning views of the San Jacinto Mountain range. The hotel’s two pools not only invite you to swim, but music lovers from near and far meet by the main pool every Wednesday night for the Horizons Jazz Series, a live, open-air jazz concert that you can enjoy with dinner under an amazing blanket of stars.
The Palm Springs area is a stellar setting for stargazing because of its dark skies — best enjoyed after a full day of admiring this city where architecture and nature blend seamlessly.
Images: Ger Ger Words: Tina Ger
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