A rendering of the Aluminaire House at Palm Springs Art Museum, 2023.
RENDERING BY CLAUDIA CENGHER
A shiny object of cutting-edge repute is taking its signature blocky shape on the grounds of the Palm Springs Art Museum. However, unlike most gleaming groundbreakers, the aluminum-clad, mono-monikered Aluminaire is hardly newfangled, at least in terms of age. The headline-making pre-fab house, designed by then-budding architects Albert Frey and Lawrence Kocher (eventual pioneers of desert modernism) — made its debut at the 1931 Allied Arts and Building Products Exhibition at Grand Central Palace in New York City and, ironically, embodies eternally utopian principles for living.
“Aluminaire provides an intellectual scaffolding to help us understand that modernism goes deeper than stylistic flourish,” says Adam Lerner, CEO and executive director of the museum, which owns the iconic structure. “It comes with a whole series of ideas for society.”
When Aluminaire is unveiled this February in its former south parking lot, its rather unique universality will not only herald Modernism Week (Feb. 15–25, 2024), but also balloon the audience for the museum exhibition Albert Frey: Inventive Modernist (Jan. 13 to June 3, 2024).
A graphite and colored pencil sketch from 1931.
PHOTO COURTESY COLLECTION OF JOHN D. ROCKETFELLER JR. LIBRARY, COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG FOUNDATION
Ninety-one years ago, Aluminaire made its first official museum appearance when photos of the house were included in the 1932 International Exhibition of Modern Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, alongside another landmark example of International-style: Richard Neutra’s impossibly rectilinear and ornamentation-free Lovell House.
Resembling a futuristic “cutaway cube” or even a three-dimensional Mark Rothko painting, as Frey scholar Joseph Rosa suggests, Aluminaire had been christened the “Tin House,” the “Canned House,” and the “Zipper” by awestruck critics of the era from The New York Times, the New York Post, and other outlets. These cheeky epithets captured the essence of industry, mass production, regarded by visionaries like Frey’s mentor, fellow Swiss architect Le Corbusier, as a means of achieving modernism’s primary postwar motivation: affordable housing. Constructed from machined components like steel posts and corrugated sheathing, Aluminaire was intended as a socialism-inspired blueprint for alleviating the housing crisis in (war-ravaged) cities.
“Theoretically, Aluminaire could have been replicated en masse, which would have given more people the opportunity to live in better-designed homes,” says Los Angeles architect and Palm Springs Art Museum trustee Leo Marmol, who is overseeing Aluminaire’s installation. While the industrial company Alcoa donated the materials for the original exhibition house, the math for the would-be prefabrication of 10,000 or more Aluminaires bottom-lined at $3,200 each.
After The New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger declared the forsaken Aluminaire “among the pivotal works of modern architecture in America” in a column on March 8, 1987, students at New York Institute of Technology, where Schwarting and Campani taught architecture, painstakingly dismantled the structure. Aluminaire was then reconstructed to its original glory about 20 miles away at its third site, NYIT’s now-shuttered campus in Central Islip, where it remained until 2012. After the couple’s ill-fated attempt to permanently relocate Aluminaire to Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, Modernism Week board member Mark Davis and a crew of like-minded preservation advocates shepherded the once-again deconstructed domicile’s 2018 cross-country migration, via semi-truck, to Palm Springs, its fourth and final destination. “We should have been Plan A,” Davis says. “Frey’s life’s work is here.”
A singular advantage to having the alpha and omega of Frey’s career in one place is witnessing the evolution of his signature commitment to site-specific works. As a universal housing solution, Aluminaire, one of the architect’s earliest works, exists in contrast to his final residence, Frey House II (also owned by the museum), which is anchored to a deeply entrenched boulder on Mount San Jacinto.
Aluminaire at the Central Islip campus of New York Institute of Technology, 2006.
PHOTO COURTESY MICHAEL SCHWARTING AND FRANCES COMPANI
“The way he wanted to make architecture completely changed in Palm Springs because of his sensitivity to the climate and place,” Schwarting says. With some modern intervention — namely a new air conditioner and natural shade courtesy of mature palms and other trees that will be planted on the site — Aluminaire is poised to gracefully weather its desert domain and will, over time, develop a soft patina symbolic of its synergy with the environment.
While only the exterior of Aluminaire will be on public view, the museum hopes to raise $300,000 for a virtual reality experience that would tour visitors through an imagined interior, complete with Frey’s experimental furniture designs, including a spring-loaded stool and a roll-out rubber table.
Despite its shiny splendor, Aluminaire’s allure has always been more about its utopian ideology, rooted in Le Corbusier’s “Five Points of Architecture.” With Frey’s assistance, Corbu materialized his potent 1926 manifesto — which serves to absolve contemporary dwellings of historical precedents — in his architectural masterpiece Villa Savoye, built from 1928 to 1931 in Poissy, France. Under this influence, Frey held Aluminaire to the same standards: Pilotis (columns) elevate the home to keep the ground unencumbered; the interiors allow a flexible format; ribbon windows infuse spaces evenly with daylight; a roof garden compensates for the earthly footprint of the house; and an austere façade ascribes to no historic style whatsoever.
“To Frey, modernism was about liberation and hopefulness,” Marmol says. “He was really passionate about Aluminaire and what it could teach America about the European philosophy that would save the world from the burden of history.”
In reality such utopian ideals are just unorthodox enough to keep them forever far-fetched. Deep down, Frey understood this but offered Aluminaire as a glimpse to an alternate existence anyway. This reminds Joseph Rosa, author of the 1999 monograph, Albert Frey, Architect (Princeton Architectural Press), about a conversation he once had with the architect, who died in 1998 at age 95.
“We were chatting about why he built his own houses in the desert, and he said, ‘The best way to show people progressive thinking is to present an example of it,’” recalls the former director of Seattle’s Frye Art Museum. “People may not accept a lot of change all at once, but they can certainly ease into a new comfort zone.”
PHOTO COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES
a very Frey February
An exhibition, a symposium, and a book fête the architect.
The shiny surface of Aluminaire will be a popular attraction during Modernism Week — and drive visitors to the architect’s retrospective exhibition, Albert Frey: Inventive Modernist (Jan. 13–June 3), as well as Albert Frey: A Symposium (Feb. 24) at the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center in downtown Palm Springs. Curated and designed by Brad Dunning, the exhibition will present many rare and previously unexhibited architectural models, drawings, films, photographs, and furniture. A hardbound book on the Swiss architect’s life and work, published by Radius Books, will feature contributions from architecture writers, historians, and critics.