Palm Springs Architecture Made in the Shade

Homes created their own "cool" before air-conditioning became popular



This 'Swiss Miss' house in Palm Springs has the unusual rock front.

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99, 100, 107, 120…summer is definitely here.

As we enter a most rigorous annual cycle, the daily topic seems to be the weather (much like when we long for heat during winter rains). I’m often mystified by visitors mentioning they live somewhere that “has seasons”; our desert is a complex ecosystem that distinctively progresses through the year continually communicating fundamental “lessons” on how to savor as well as survive it…lessons as intense as a garage door frozen-shut on an icy driveway elsewhere may advise one that today might be a better day to clean out that junk drawer than to take a trip to town in the snow.

A place’s natural offerings directly influence its built environment, and should, particularly in a place like the Coachella Valley. It’s a logical matter few consider, but a notion integral to how a community develops over time, and speaks to how satisfactorily it may thrive.

Palm Springs plucky 1950’s A-Frame “Swiss Miss” houses were an idiosyncratic nod to cozy chalets in the faraway Alps or Aspen. They provide sundrenched rooms integrated into nearby spectacular mountain views, but they certainly weren’t put here to keep snow off the roof.

Conversely, their Southern California construction methods wouldn’t have sufficed in those wintry places either. Acclaimed modernist architects Donald Wexler and Rick Harrison’s Royal Hawaiian Estates condominiums are a sophisticated 1960 interpretation of “Tiki” lessons…the often whimsical motif, forms and material ideas brought home by troops stationed in the South Pacific during World War II.

Air conditioning, introduced as early as the 1930s in water-based systems, led to more advanced technology and swamp coolers that can control staying cool in a parched climate. But look at desert homes from the very earliest days, before air conditioning was popularized… you’ll see cool adobes, protective broad flat roofs and deep eaves, graceful overhangs above clerestory windows, and atriums deftly situated to integrate the site to seasonal and lighting changes as well as to protect inhabitants from heat, direct sun, wind or other elements a particular season may proffer.

So yes, summer is definitely here…its intensity has helped mold the built environment in shaded courtyards protected from direct sun and ventilated breezeways defined by decorative concrete screens.

Refreshing pools and leafy gardens; glass walls bringing us into the landscape while protecting us from it…they’re all logical extensions of environmental dictates that have helped fashion creative and functional architecture and design decisions responsive to their surroundings.

Palm Springs resident Robert Imber is executive director of “Desert Utopia”, the documentary on Palm Springs modernism, a board member of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, and a trustee of The California Preservation Foundation, the state’s largest and oldest preservation organization. Imber operates Palm Springs Modern Tours, offering twice daily tours of Palm Springs mid-century modern architecture (www.palmspringsmoderntours.com).

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