A conical fireplace adjacent to the indoor pool draws the eye.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JULIUS SHULMAN, COURTESY © J. PAUL GETTY TRUST, GETTY RESEARCH INSTITUTE, LOS ANGELES (2004.R.10)
In one sense, Albert Frey’s tiny Palm Springs bungalow wasn’t all that different from the Palace of Versailles. The architect who broadly established modernism in the desert broached the comparison himself in his lofty 1939 tract In Search of a Living Architecture. The château, he wrote, had been “organized into one general volume for the purpose of a desired psychological impression.”
Frey’s own house, built in 1940, fit the same description. With its rectangular shape, it too could be “grasped at once with no possibility of ambiguous interpretation.” There were differences, of course. The château encompasses 721,206 square feet. Built on a 16-by-20-foot pad, Frey House I, as it came to be known, measured 320 square feet, closer in size to Marie Antoinette’s cake plate. Yet it appeared larger because of wing walls and roof extensions that stretched off toward the horizon, a sort of architectural trompe l’oeil riff he picked up from Mies van der Rohe, designer of the Barcelona Pavilion of 1929. In all, it gave a twist to the saying, “A man’s home is his castle.”
Albert Frey poses in front of the erstwhile Frey House I. The second-story turret and corrugated fencing were additions.
Frey liked to build with the idea of getting the most for his dollar. “It’s easy to splash and spend a lot of money, but that’s not very interesting,” he said much later in an interview with author Jennifer Golub.
The Zurich, Switzerland, native had been in Palm Springs for six years when he built his first home on 2 acres at 1150 Paseo El Mirador. Primary building materials included corrugated aluminum, plate glass, and 4-by-8-foot cement-asbestos panels over a wooden framework. The panels provided the dimensions that served as the basis for the whole plan, and manufacturer Johns-Manville made them available in rose and sage green, colors that in their own way referred to the landscape.
“They were very good colors,” Frey told Golub, “and they were all mixed into the material, so if you cut it or anything happened, it’s still the same color.”
The house was “just one room for living and sleeping with a kitchen and bath.” Folding partitions allowed the interior to be left open or divided into units. Furniture upholstered in orange was sparse and cube-shaped: no armoire, buffet, or credenza. The aluminum ceiling was painted blue for a homey touch suggesting the sky. An evaporative cooler refreshed the interior on hot days, and a couple of in-wall Thermador electric heaters warmed it on chilly ones. A drawing shows the water heater located under the kitchen counter. Wastes went to a septic tank.
The architect cast concrete chairs into the pool’s surrounding hardscape; eventually, Frey fenced in the yard.
Wing walls and roof extensions gave the diminutive Frey House I a larger-than-life presence.
Out back, Frey would build a small guesthouse, and his father, Albert Sr., came from Zurich and stayed there until the end of his life. The “car shelter” — Frey’s term — housed a smart-looking 1941 Ford convertible. He always had nice cars, cameras, and clothing of the Haggar Sansabelt variety, usually in white or solid colors. Rarely if ever did he wear a tie.
For Frey, economy ruled, as it had for Henry David Thoreau in his 10-by-15-foot cabin at Walden Pond. Thoreau’s list of building materials included shanty boards ($8.03), refuse shingles ($4), 1,000 old bricks ($4), and other miscellany for a total spend of $28.12. Frey’s ever-so-humble list was as follows:
- Land: $2,426.94
- Original house: $3,447.25
- First addition: $20,585.63
- Second addition: $8,165.56
- Total: $34,625.28
Guests strike a pose poolside prior to addition of the roof extension and second story.
The greatest opulence came from an unusual idea, one of many that would have made Thoreau’s head swim. “First, I built an indoor pool, so that instead of just looking out, I had a little intimate pool area,” Frey said. “I had fly screens stretched over the top. It was nice to have water inside, and I could bathe in privacy to cool off on a hot summer day.” It presaged his 1946 Raymond Loewy House, which incorporated a smidge of the outdoor swimming pool encroaching into the living room.
When Frey added an outdoor pool, it was large, with five steps down into the shallow end. The surrounding hardscaping included concrete seats cast in place. He liked to make 8-millimeter movies of reflections playing upon the water or the aluminum panels of the house. Once again extending the built structure, he placed bold overhead gridwork atop poles to outline the patio, reaching toward infinity. Conversely, in his tract, he had preached: “Dependable rectilinear shapes aid our efficiency in work, but we prefer, by contrast, the more tolerant vagueness of curvilinear outlines in relaxation.” Yet water, he continued, was “simultaneously shape, transparent space, and a surface that reflects surrounding objects.”
According to the critic Alan Hess, it is possible to see Frey I representing a break with the dogmas propounded by Le Corbusier and van der Rohe. Living in the desert and building for it changed Frey. It conformed to his emerging ideas about “spiritual enjoyment” as outlined in 1939.
“His buildings embody this,” says Hess, the Modernism Week board member whose 22nd book, The Palm Springs School, is due next year. “They are taking modernism into a new dimension of pleasure. The early European modernists talked mostly about efficiency — and machine-like precision to bring about a new world with efficiency. Frey had this feeling for pleasure. So he has swimming pools, beautiful views, curves, colors, the delightful mix of different surfaces and textures, all meant to be pleasurable to the eye.”
Frey prioritized the “intimate little pool area” inside his home.
There was also Frey’s experimental, inventive side. As a boy, he built canoes of wood and canvas and paddled them on Lake Zurich. He assembled radio receivers and electric-motor kits. In the intimate dining area of Frey I, which was enclosed by a sliding glass door and screen, and bounded on one side by rose panels leading the way to a point between a cactus patch and the pool, he created an uncanny table suspended 8 feet below the ceiling by nine aluminum wires anchored to wooden joists. Hanging 25 inches above the patio, the table was just high enough to keep a chuckwalla from jumping into the potato salad. The disc — 5 feet, 8 inches in diameter — comprised two thicknesses of ¾-inch plywood covered in rose-tinged vinyl and edged in aluminum.
“Instead of having big, bulky legs to support it, these are actually clothesline-type plastic-covered metal cables,” the architect reported. “I figured out the triangulation and the weight of the table so it wouldn’t move.”
Glass panels and deep overhangs framed views of the natural landscape.
Despite the international scope and significance of this work, Frey (1903–1998) was very much a local architect. He enjoyed his biggest fame late in life, yet the uniqueness of Frey I reverberated far and wide. In September 1946, long before the dramatic remodeling to come, the distinguished Italian magazine Domus made “Casa in California” a cover story. It praised the decorative value of precast poolside seats, with more praise for the undulating aluminum panels that defended the house from the sun.
If the lack of columns, arches, pilasters, or cornices — ornament in general — troubled anyone, Frey addressed that with his 1953 remodeling. Every castle has a tower, so why not a new, cylindrical bedroom addition rising from the existing footprint, with passage to it gained via a spectacular floating staircase leading to a cutout in the blue ceiling. Gloria Koenig, author of Albert Frey, explains that the staircase “was suspended from the ceiling with a shining maze of ¼-inch-diameter aluminum rods.” In cross-section, the house now suggested an ultramodern aeolian harp, with the conical fireplace chimney seemingly capable of adding low-frequency, bassoon-like sounds.
Perching upon the roof, the circular enclosure wore a breastplate of diamond-embossed aluminum with round openings for eight windows, each with a cylindrical shade. The shades were of different lengths, articulated according to Frey’s studies of solar position. Four of the ports had a pivot mechanism inside to rotate the glass for ventilation. Altogether, the new structure begged for official designation as a UFO docking station.
In response to a question from Jennifer Golub about formal austerity, Frey replied, “No, you have to have your fantasy going, too. After all, that’s what life is. When you think what nature produces in fantastic forms, in birds and animals and everything, that’s where creativity comes in.” His fantasy became known as the Flash Gordon Suite after the space explorer from the Sunday funnies.
Frey House I pool.
Part of the fantasy entailed the use of vinyl. Invented in 1920, vinyl was another of the technical materials that fascinated Frey. He swaddled the bedroom in tufted yellow vinyl and hung floor-to-ceiling drapes. “And these drapes were also plastic [vinyl] and kind of a midnight blue, so when you drew them at night, you felt it was good for sleeping,” he said. Acoustic tiles, also in blue, made up the ceiling.
Frey attributed the inspiration to Thomas Jefferson’s domed Monticello residence, which also had round windows. (For the record, Jefferson never posed out front with an Austin Healey 100 roadster.) Another citation went to the Mayan observatory in Chichén Itzá. Whatever its sources, the expressionistic touch drew plenty of interest, not always appreciative. Frey’s colleague and rival, E. Stewart Williams, called the 1940 house “a gem.” The addition, though, was another story in more than one way. “He screwed it up,” Williams told Alan Hess in 1999. “He added that damn round turret. It never fit on the box.”
The architect tested his shaded portholes in a cylindrical bedroom addition.
Taking a turn as an architectural critic, the writer Tom Wolfe came along and, while never mentioning Frey, savaged Le Corbusier and van der Rohe, comparing the buildings they engendered to insecticide refineries. With an exception made for Frey’s use of color, it loosely fit when Wolfe wrote, in a kind of inversion of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”: “I once saw the owners of such a place driven to the edge of sensory deprivation by the whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & spareness of it all.”
As part of the remodeling of Frey I, aluminum trelliswork replaced the original wooden overhead gridwork at the pool’s perimeter, and fiberglass panels in light yellow capped the elevated structure to provide variety and relief. Frey I had become part of a growing neighborhood with less privacy, so an enclosure went up. As usual, the architect stayed away from heavy fortification, opting instead for thin fiberglass panels in rose and sage.
“That was a structural challenge, this wall,” Frey said. “You see, like a water tank, it’s corrugated and stands up by itself on account of the curve.”
The architect repeated themes from Frey I in subsequent projects, whether with colorful canopies or corrugated fiberglass partitions. He included shaded portholes in his designs for the North Shore Beach & Yacht Club and the Riviera Apartments and precast poolside seats at his second home, Frey House II.
The corrugated aluminum ceiling was a Frey signature.
The architect suspended his dining table with metal cables.
Thoreau rejoined 19th-century Massachusetts society after a year and a half; his cabin was moved, used as a granary, and finally scrapped out. Frey had his first house from 1940 to 1964. He sold it to a speculator who tore it down to build a four-unit development on those 2 acres that went bust. Meanwhile, Frey devoted himself to creating Frey II, hugging the mountainside on Palisades Drive. No comment from the architect about the demolition of his concept house seems to be on record. He went on with his work, as if abiding by the Thoreau adage: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”