Palm Springs is ground zero for mid-century modern architecture Get Ready to Embrace your Inner Modernist
Palm Springs Modern Architecture Photo Julius Shulman
Every February for the past 9 years the big event to attend is the Palm Springs Modernism Show, which I missed by one week. Was I disappointed when I found out. I would have planned my trip differently. More than eighty of the foremost decorative and fine arts dealers convene to offer the very best of mid 20th-century furniture, paintings, sculpture, lighting, books and jewelry to eager collectors. Concurrently, Modernism Week surrounds the Modernism show with an events lineup offered during nine days that includes an always-memorable Saturday night gala, retro films, lectures, architectural tours around town (some on a double-decker bus), a classic car show, gallery openings and no shortage of martini soirees to rival the Rat Pack’s. A “don’t-miss” party (that I missed) this year was held at Frank Sinatra’s Palm Springs home, a sumptuous 1947 Mid-Century marvel with period décor, that rents out for $2,600 / night.
Palm Springs Modern Architecture Twin Palms: The Frank Sinatra Estate
But all was not lost because I did a self guided driving tour of "Screen Block" houses. The tour was headed by my Dad in the drivers' seat and two really good back-seat drivers (Joyce & me) with the map, shouting out directions: turn left here! no maybe try turning right!...stop now!....back up! The tour was written up as: Palm Springs' Hidden Architectural Treasures and some of these treasures were really well hidden off the main track. Unless a visitor is fortunate enough to spend an extended time in Palm Springs they are unlikely to notice or appreciate the extensive use of a quirky building material known as "screen block", a pierced decorative concrete block most commonly produced in 12" squares. It had it's heyday from the late 1950s through the 1960s especially in climates where the challenges of sun protection spawned a host of architectural solutions including metal grilles and wood louvers. During this brief "golden era" more than 250 different screen block patterns were produced around the country. Palm Springs is remarkable for having at least 54 of those patterns documented within its city limits. Along with this popularity screen block inherited a cascade of synonyms including "breeze block", "grille block", "solar block", "veil block", perforated block", "vented block", and "pierced block". Manufacturers claimed that buildings using screen block were 10 degrees cooler. Screen block has its origins and is a close cousin of the wooden grilles found in Moorish and Hindu architecture. But despite these exotic connections, history shows us that screen block's functional versatility and design appeal was embraced as a uniquely American product, forever linked to the space-age optimism of the late 50s and 60s and to the Sunbelt lifestyle.
1. The first example was the Resort Realty Building 190 E.Palm Canyon Dr. The exotic three dimensional block (today painted turquoise a colour that works wonderfully in the clear desert air of Palm Springs) was designed by Austrian-American sculptor Erwin Hauer. It was far more expensive and difficult to produce than standard screen block and surviving examples of Hauer's blocks are extremely rare.
Palm Springs Modern Architecture
This building was hard to get close to, as it was at the intersection of 4 busy streets with lots of traffic. But I am glad that I persevered to get close enough to take close up shots of the way the sun cast these interesting shadows.
2. The next location was rather hard to find, Twin Palms Apartments 495 Twin Palms Drive, and I would have driven right by without stopping to take in the beauty of it. A different colour has been used for each of the sections and the screen block is called "Venus" because they create imaginative "Martian-like figures.
3. Then to my delight we went to Canyon View Estates, an absolutely gorgeous neighborhood of detached condominiums built in the early 60s, designed by architect William Krisel who was commissioned by the developer Alexander. Alexander changed the face of Palm Springs with the construction of more than 2,500 homes in the modernist idiom. Krisel also designed the private home of the Alexanders' - "The Alexander House" which was dubbed The "House of Tomorrow". It was conceived as an experiment in modern living. It gained fame as the honeymoon home of Elvis and Priscilla Presley.
Palm Springs Modern Architecture Alexander Residence1957 Photo: Julius Shulman
William Krisel shaped the look of Palm Springs 50 years ago and now a new generation is resurrecting his classic designs, and it was so apparent upon driving into this subdivision, where you could see that it is becoming the hip and happening area.
Palm Springs Modern Architecture
This house with the Japanese inspired "Starburst" pattern was being renovated and I was able to slip inside and take a few photos.
The wall between the kitchen & living room was taken out and this interesting glass mosaic tile was put on the backslash
of the all-white kitchen (that's me in the reflection taking the picture).
Double molded sinks in the Ensuite
Furniture and the remains of the workers lunch in the dining room. Great Chairs - vintage to match the era of the house.
All the floors throughout the house including the outdoor balcony and the carport were tiled in white Mexican pavers.
Palm Springs Modern Architecture
The living rooms in these homes feature vaulted ceilings and clearstory windows
Picture taken from inside living room. The windows are on all four sides of the living room which is a really effective way of
getting light into the interior of the home without the effects of the heat from the sun.
4. Last stop Parker Hotel 4200 E. Palm Canyon Dr, recently re-designed by Jonathan Adler. This vast wall of is made of "Vista-Vue" pattern screen block. Both beautiful and functional. Don't you love the Bell Hop's pink jacket? It is so Jonathan Adler.
I hope you enjoyed the screen block tour.
We are off to have drinks at the Viceroy.
Other travel posts you might like:
My Visit to Palm Springs
Drinks at the Viceroy Palm Springs
Sunday in Milan
Venice - The Old and the New
VENICE - Bauer Palladio Hotel & Spa, Giudecca Island, Redentore
ROME - Hotel Mascagni, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Piazza Barberini
FLORENCE - Hotel Santa Maria Novella, Uffizi, Accademia Gallery
Patricia Gray writes about 'WHAT'S HOT 'in the world of Interior Design, new and emerging trends, modern design, architecture,
and travel, as well as how your surroundings can influence the world around you.
© Patricia Gray Interior Design Blog, 2009