The sweeping roof of the Palm Springs Visitor Information Center, designed by Albert Frey, is known as a hyperbolic paraboloid.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY FREDRIK BRODÉN
You have finally acquired the midcentury modern home of your dreams. Now, visiting friends and family want to know all about it — from its distinctive butterfly roof to the renown of its architect (likely William Krisel) and its mysterious lack of a basement.
Although you don’t profess to be an architecture aficionado, you do regard yourself as a savvy consumer and well-informed citizen of our architectural mecca. A more-than-minimal grasp of midcentury modern architecture is increasingly essential here: Modernism Week unfolds over a fortnight in February, preceded by a tantalizing week of programming in the fall, and the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Center offers year-round programming.
The lexicon that follows is designed to assure you a passing grade in any Midcentury Mod Arch 101 course and to empower you to answer guests’ questions, whether about who’s who among midcentury modern architects, the movement’s forebears, or the pros and cons of slab construction.
Slim Aarons' witty photograph “Poolside Gossip” (1970) is an icon of its midcentury moment and desert setting. It depicts two glamorous blonds, seen in profile. Aarons’ subjects, Helen Kaptur and Nelda Linsk, recline on chaise lounges symmetrically arranged in front of the pool at the Kaufmann Desert House as Helen Dzo Dzo strolls behind them. Designed by architect Richard Neutra in 1946, the house was among the first landmarks of midcentury modern architecture in the desert. I like to think the women are gossiping about another Kaufmann architectural commission — the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed masterpiece Fallingwater (1935).
Alexander Construction Company developed more than 2,500 midcentury modern homes in Los Angeles and Palm Springs starting in the 1950s. Alexander and his son, Robert, worked with gifted architects to create affordable housing to help meet the demand created by GIs returning from World War II. They developed the city’s first tracts, offering well-designed homes constructed of industrial materials, produced at industrial scale, and priced at a reasonable $19,500 for 1,200 square feet. Shortly after acquiring the Racquet Club, the Alexanders and their wives died in 1965 in a private plane accident. They are survived by their daughter, Jill, the only family member who was not on the flight.
Alohaus is the recent term of choice for A-frame structures that once mainly signified pancake houses and ski chalets. (The latter was cheekily referred to as “Swiss Miss.”) Today, it encompasses the ever-popular vernacular from — or at least references to — the South Pacific, best exemplified locally by Charles Du Bois’ A-frame homes in Vista Las Palmas and Donald Wexler’s Royal Hawaiian Estates.
Charles Du Bois designed A-frame houses like this one, built in 1958 by the Alexander Construction Company and their partner, Joe Dunas. Also known as Swiss Miss, the architectural style is increasingly referred to as Alohaus for its Polynesian influence.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY FREDRIK BRODÉN
Bauhaus was a school of art and architecture founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, by architect Walter Gropius. Its philosophy advocated for the elimination of historical references in favor of the coupling of contemporary industrial materials and building methods, an approach that looks back to 19th-century world’s fair structures, such as the gargantuan greenhouse that housed London’s Great Exhibition (1849). An unsympathetic Hitler shut down the progressive, educational institution in 1933, prompting an exodus of German and Austrian architects to the United States. Those who settled in Southern California included Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, and Albert Frey.
Brise soleil, French for “sun blocker,” is an exterior feature designed to reduce heat gain inside a building. It is realized by employing movable louvers of wood or metal positioned to obstruct the midday sun (see the E. Stuart Williams–designed Architecture and Design Center) or by fixed deflectors of pierced concrete block such as those that form the façade of Parker Palm Springs.
The butterfly roof resembles a shallow V — higher at each end than in the center — making it both distinctive and highly impractical outside of dry climates. Devised by William Krisel in 1952, it was an effective way to draw prospective buyers’ attention in a sea of undifferentiated, flat-roofed tract homes. Employed exclusively in domestic architecture, the butterfly roof adds interest to the new public library in downtown Desert Hot Springs.
A style of the 1970s and 1980s, brutalism followed midcentury modernism and appeared to be a reaction to it. Characterized by thick-walled concrete rather than the transparent, glass-walled construction of its predecessor, brutalism’s sturdy, masculine imagery suggests strength and security. These were desirable associations for structures housing valuables such as banks, including several in South Palm Springs, and museums, including the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Cantilevered describes any architectural element that projects seemingly unsupported from a beam or wall. (Picture an inverted L.) It can apply to roof overhangs that shade windows or to entire structures that seem to float precariously from mountainous sites. For a striking contemporary structure with a cantilevered roof, see the Desert Palisades guardhouse (2016), designed by Sean Lockyer of Studio AR&D Architects.
Clerestory, derived from the Middle English “clear storey,” refers to the uppermost row of glazed windows in a Gothic cathedral designed to admit light due to its elevation above neighboring roofs. Eliminating the need for solid stone walls to support heavy roofs was an engineering breakthrough, bathing once-dim interiors in radiant light. Clerestory windows in midcentury modern architecture function similarly, illuminating interiors without sacrificing privacy.
William F. Cody was a prototypical architect of his day, both professional and prolific. Born in Ohio and raised in Los Angeles, he studied at USC with architect Cliff May. He moved his practice to Palm Springs in 1950 following commissions to extend the Desert Inn and to create the Del Marcos Hotel from the ground up. Real fame came following his conversion of the Thunderbird Dude Ranch into Thunderbird Country Club. Commissions of hybrid recreational facilities and residential developments became a specialty. (Cody and others pioneered the concept of “fairway modernism,” as it was colloquially known, in the Coachella Valley.) Despite this focus, he produced a variety of buildings, ranging from the Palm Springs Public Library to St. Theresa Catholic Church.
The concrete slab foundation is the flat, cement surface on which most mid-mod homes were built. They obviated the possibility of a basement or crawl space beneath, making them both an inexpensive and impractical way to build. With gas and water lines embedded in the slab, surgery is required for any repair or replacement.
John Entenza published and edited Arts & Architecture magazine from 1940 to ’75. The vital outlet for the discussion of midcentury modern architecture also sponsored the Case Study House program (1945–’66). Entenza commissioned 36 designs in Los Angeles County for the program, with the greatest concentration of built designs located in Pacific Palisades. (Charles and Ray Eames’ home can be visited there today.) By the end of the ’40s, 350,000 viewers had visited the initial half-dozen Case Study homes, making the program a huge success. Their forward-leaning designs informed the modern movement that became so prevalent in Palm Springs.
Swiss-born Albert Frey was among the pioneering architects who helped bring modern design to Palm Springs. He was one of the few architects in the United States to have firsthand experience of European avant-garde design, having worked in Le Corbusier’s studio in Paris. In 1928, he moved to New York and collaborated with the well-connected architect A. Lawrence Kocher, most notably on the design of the prefab, lightweight Aluminaire House (1931), which was donated in 2020 to the Palm Springs Art Museum and is currently being reassembled there. Frey also donated his own home, known as Frey House II (1963), to the museum.
Frey completed a variety of commissions during his long career that included Palm Springs City Hall (1952), two yacht clubs on the Salton Sea, and the structure that welcomes many visitors to Palm Springs — the so-called Flying Wedge gas station. Designed 1965 by Frey and Robson Chambers, the Tramway Gas Station was dedicated to its present use as the Palm Springs Visitor Information Center in 2014. Its cantilevered, wedge-shaped canopy — a hyperbolic paraboloid — is so iconic it helped spur local interest in architectural preservation. Frey also designed the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Station (1963), which ingeniously incorporates a stream that runs through the site.
The Swiss architect’s penchant for aluminum plays out in brise-soleil tubing and corrugated exterior ceilings at Palm Springs City Hall.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY FREDRIK BRODÉN
A postwar architectural genre largely seen in California coffee shops, the Googie style gets its name from the eponymous Hollywood java joint designed by John Lautner that opened in 1949 and quickly became the hangout of budding stars such as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Influenced by the Atomic Age, the aesthetic often employs jazzy neon signage, large plate glass windows, and curvilinear geometric shapes like boomerangs.
Palm Springs’ reputation as Hollywood’s playground was intensified by movie-studio executives’ sensitivity to the charges of libertinism — rumored and real — leveled at their actor-employees. To keep them out of mischief, the execs ordered their contract players to stray no further than 100 miles from home, prompting dozens to build desert abodes. Among them were Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Bing Crosby, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra.
Hyperbolic paraboloid describes the distinctive, wedge shape of the canopy over the Palm Springs Visitor Information Center that marks the northern end of town. Designed as a gas station by Albert Frey in 1965, its dramatic, canopy roof stretches out and dwarfs the structure beneath, creating the illusion that liftoff to some distant galaxy is imminent. Completed in 1959 and recently restored, Walter White’s Willcockson House in Indio features a hyperbolic paraboloid roof that predates Frey’s.
International style is the imprecise term for modern architecture that emerged in northern Europe following World War I and dominated through the 20th century. Its moniker comes from the widely seen 1932 exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, although no single descriptor would seem expansive enough to encompass the idiosyncratic works of, say, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Many German and Austrian architects who were adherents of International Style escaped Naziism in the 1930s and would assume prestigious faculty positions at Ivy League colleges in the United States. By the end of the 20th century, International Style represented not the egalitarian aims of its founders but developers of unsustainable, look-alike downtowns crowded with corporate towers.
A. Quincy Jones began his career in the years leading up to WWII in Los Angeles in the office of architect Paul Revere Williams. Following the war, Jones opened his own practice but continued to collaborate with Williams on commissions including Romanoff on the Rocks, the premier desert restaurant of the day. His most high-profile project was Sunnylands, the winter retreat of late philanthopists and ambassadors Walter and Leonore Annenberg. Jones’ impact as an educator and planner was at least as great as the prominence he derived from his commissions. A professor at USC and later dean of its architecture school, Jones collaborated with developer Joseph Eichler in implementing the visionary concept of the greenbelt. The placement of suburban tract homes within communal parklike settings struck a chord with Americans who found in it the perfect marriage of contemporary convenience and the wooded paradise of an arcadian past.
William Krisel was born in Shanghai, where his father worked as a distributor for United Artists. Like so many of his architectural peers, he attended USC, graduating in 1949, and quickly developed a prosperous practice. Arguably the most prolific of all midcentury modern architects, he benefited from the unique circumstances that allowed a generation of architects to practice without struggling against stultifying convention or suffering a shortage of clients during the longest building boom in U.S. history. A statistical portrait of Krisel’s career alone staggers the imagination. With his first partner, Dan Saxon Palmer, he designed more than 30,000 homes throughout Southern California, 2,500 of them constructed in Palm Springs during the ’50s and many still standing. Their firm, Palmer & Krisel, frequently worked with the Alexander Construction Company and by 1960 was collaborating with seven of the 10 largest homebuilders in the country.
Producing housing for the masses, Krisel’s well-built and modestly priced homes were airy and open, well ventilated, and filled with light. Features included clerestory windows, breezeways, and sometimes mobile room dividers to temporarily rearrange floor plans. An adept marketer, Krisel tweaked his tract homes with different orientations on their lots or used different rooflines, including the butterfly roof he first employed in 1952. He and Palmer split in ’66; three years later, Krisel formed a new partnership with Abraham Shapiro that lasted a decade. Krisel died in 2017 at the age of 92, living long enough to enjoy the renewal of interest in his work.
The organic architecture of John Lautner demonstrates the stylistic breadth and engineering ingenuity of midcentury modern building in Southern California. Rather than conforming to trends of geometry and angularity, Lautner’s work captivates with curving forms, a legacy of his 1930s apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright. Although Lautner is not a household name, many of his buildings are indelibly etched in our collective memory. James Bond–loving moviegoers know the cast concrete Elrod House (1969) from its appearance in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), while those who drive can hardly avoid views of the 24,000-square-foot Bob Hope House (1979) that dominates a hillside above Highway 111 in the exclusive Southridge community of Palm Springs. Those who crave more Lautner can stay at The Lautner Compound in Desert Hot Springs, which offers event and vacation rentals in its four suites.
Born in 1892 in Austria, Richard Neutra witnessed the advance of modernist design while working in Erich Mendelsohn’s Berlin office during the early 1920s. He emigrated to the United States in 1923 to join his university friend Rudolf Schindler in Los Angeles, where they collaborated on a few of Schindler’s projects — including some that utilized Neutra’s skills as a landscape architect. Neutra became known for rigorously geometric designs that sometimes verged on the theoretical at the expense of comfort. He hit his stride with the Lovell Health House (1929) in Newport, which embodied modernist concerns in a spectacular setting, as did the Kaufmann Desert House (1945) in Palm Springs, which set the scene for Slim Aarons’ “Poolside Gossip” image and the 2022 film Don’t Worry Darling. Prosperity followed World War II for Neutra. He worked with the Alexander Construction Company during the 1950s and, in 1955, was commissioned by the U.S. Department of State to design a new embassy in Karachi, Pakistan. More of an Internationalist than his peers in Southern California — he even offered his services to the Soviet Union in 1932 to help build public housing — he spent the ’60s partnering with his son Dion Neutra to build posh villas in Europe.
Liliane Kaufmann reclines poolside in a 1947 Julius Shulman photograph of the Kaufmann Desert House, an important design by Richard Neutra.
PHOTO COURTESY JULIIUS SHULMAN / © J. PAUL GETTY TRUST, GETTY RESEARCH INSTITUTE, LOS ANGELES (2004.R.10)
Palm Springs Art Museum showcases midcentury modern art and architecture through its exhibitions and facilities. Founded in 1938 as the Palm Springs Desert Museum, it operated from a downtown location where it presented not only art, but also natural science materials and Cahuilla artifacts. Its focus on art was concretized by the 1974 construction of the museum’s flagship building, designed by E. Stewart Williams. In 2011, the museum purchased the nearby Santa Fe Federal Savings & Loan, designed by Williams in 1960, and reopened it in 2014 as the Architecture and Design Center, Edwards Harris Pavilion.
Pilotis (plural piloti) references a support such as a column or pillar that lifts a building off the ground. They have existed in architecture since the inception of housing, but it was the advocacy and example of 20th-century French architect Le Corbusier that positioned the pilotis in the literal foreground of so many midcentury modern structures. The typically slender columns provide elegant support for the overhanging flat roofs that protect buildings from the relentless desert sun.
Post-and-beam construction is often referenced in opposition to the timber-frame system of building. Both, however, employ beams to produce architectural volumes. The advantage of post-and-beam over timber-frame construction is its greater strength, while its disadvantage is the added time and expense required for building. Midcentury modern architects found sacrificing cost for aesthetics a viable trade-off that enabled them to work with the largest possible expanses of glass that in turn flooded their buildings with unprecedented amounts of light.
Ranch house simply refers to a single-family, single-story home. Often open plan with a pitched roof and low-slung roofline, the style came with or without an attached garage. After WWII, the ranch house dominated home production in the United States, most often in the suburbs where cheaper land enabled yards. Experts regard building designer Cliff May (1906–1989) as the father of the California ranch house.
Photographer Julius Shulman played a pivotal and unprecedented role in spreading the gospel of Southern California architecture. His dramatic, usually black-and-white pictures of midcentury modern homes frequently appeared in magazines such as Life and Look, as well as in equivalent publications around the world. Inflected with the expressionism of film noir, Shulman’s output underlined the subliminal sex appeal of his inanimate subjects in a way no photography had before.
Sunnylands, the 200-acre Rancho Mirage estate of Walter and Leonore Annenberg, features a golf course, guest cottages, and a 25,000-square-foot home designed in 1966 by architect A. Quincy Jones. Annenberg, a media mogul (TV Guide, Philadelphia Inquirer) and a former ambassador to the United Kingdom, is said to have built the pink-walled estate in response to the rejection that he and other Jews faced upon seeking membership at local country clubs. Sunnylands gained its reputation as a presidential retreat thanks to visits from seven chief executives, especially golf lovers Eisenhower, Reagan, and Obama. The construction of a conference center designed by Frederick Fisher in 2012 initiated a new chapter in Sunnylands’ history as the host of meetings devoted to subjects of global relevance. The same year, the center and gardens opened to the public for tours and other programming.
While Donald Wexler planned to build an entire subdivision of prefab Steel Houses, only seven ever came to fruition. This one features a folded-plate roof.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY FREDRIK BRODÉN
Donald Wexler’s career began, like that of so many architects, as an apprentice to an elder he admired, Richard Neutra. The self-effacing Wexler would go on to design several buildings in the desert, including the main terminal of the Palm Springs Airport (1966) and the Royal Hawaiian Estates (1960), originally a Jewish retirement community and now among the few tasteful exponents of the Pacific-themed Alohaus or Tiki craze to eschew kitsch. His dream of replacing wood-framed homes with prefabricated, steel-frame construction was never realized, though. The almost-indestructible steel frames he had fabricated in Los Angeles could be erected on-site in just four hours’ time, but due to rising steel prices, Wexler could build only seven of his prefab Steel Houses in Palm Springs. He was affectionately known as “the man of steel.”
E. Stewart Williams seemed to have architecture in his DNA. His dad was the architect who designed La Plaza, a shopping center at the heart of Palm Springs. In 1947, “Stew” and his architect brother, Roger, would join their father in the firm of Williams, Williams & Williams. Among the oft-told stories about modern architecture’s origins in Palm Springs was Frank Sinatra’s decision — thanks to Williams’ persuasion — to build his new home not in the Georgian-by-way-of-Beverly-Hills style he was contemplating, but in the hip, new midcentury modern aesthetic. Although the Kaufmann House preceded Sinatra’s 1947 Twin Palms estate, the latter received mega-publicity leading many to regard it as the first midcentury residence in the desert. Williams’ remarkably prolific career spanned four decades and left indelible marks on Palm Springs. A few of his previously unmentioned commissions that followed Sinatra’s included the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway’s Mountain Station, the Crafton Hills Community College Campus in nearby Yucaipa, and the Coachella Valley Savings & Loan. To create his relatively user-friendly brand of potentially austere, modern architecture, Williams tended to warm up cool, industrial materials with an extensive use of wood and local stone.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style homes occupy an important place in the development of midcentury modern design. Characterized by their sprawling horizontality and deeply cantilevered roofs providing protection from the sun, Wright’s houses championed indoor-outdoor living and helped to civilize the brave new world of automobile-dominated suburbia. His distinctly American sensibility tuned to the natural settings of his homes, first in the upper Midwest and later in the desert southwest of Scottsdale, where he moved from Wisconsin in 1937. Although Wright’s name is not associated with any building in the Coachella Valley, his son Lloyd Wright spent the decade after World War II designing most of the buildings on the 400-acre campus of the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, aka the Institute of Mentalphysics, in a style strongly influenced by his father’s organic architecture.