Q&A with Alan Hess, architecture critic




AH: Many pieces came together to make Palm Springs an extraordinary center for Modern architecture. There is the spectacular setting and weather, which attracted the wealthy and Hollywood stars with money to build houses. The vacation atmosphere made people willing to try something new helped, too. But the key ingredient was the chance arrival of a handful of extraordinary architects from all over the country and from Europe who had no ambitions to be famous outside Palm Springs. All they wanted was to have a good life practicing architecture locally.

MID: What is Palm Springs like today?

AH: Since the mid-1990s, Palm Springs has rediscovered its Modern heritage. Fortunately, the town had been in a slump since the 1970s as new development moved south; that was fortunate because it meant many mid-century buildings remained more or less intact for rediscovery. This resurgence has spawned a healthy preservation community that actively defends Modern buildings.

MID: Can you speak to desert landscape and how its characteristics accentuate modern architecture?

AH: Palm Springs architects were all trained in Modernism. That meant that they approached design from the standpoint of solving problems rather than applying historical styles. The desert offers some of the greatest challenges to architecture simply to be livable, to deal with the heat and the strong light, and to make a comfortable environment. This inspired all of the Palm Springs architects to use their creativity to make their buildings functional in the harsh desert climate. Of course, the desert is also extraordinarily beautiful, and the colors, textures, native materials, and views also inspired these architects.

MID: Is there anything you want to share about any of the films key players?

William F. Cody
Cody deserves a lot more recognition than he has so far. He had a very distinctive interpretation of Modern architecture as he strived to shave down his structure, his roofs, his buildings to a remarkably light and absolute minimum so his buildings sit lightly on the land. His office was in Palm Springs.

Albert Frey
Born in Switzerland, he worked for less than a year with Le Corbusier in Paris before moving to New York. But he was enchanted with the desert when he visited in the early 1930s. He let California reshape his design sensibility. His office was in Palm Springs.

William Krisel
Krisel’s Modern tract homes for Palm Springs for the Alexander Company brought Modern design to affordable second homes in the desert. They’re among the most sought after today for restoration. His office was in Los Angeles.

John Lautner
This great Los Angeles architects designed to extraordinary buildings in Palm Springs; the Desert Hot Springs motel (recently restored) is a small piece of compact genius in fitting four rooms together, yet making them feel spacious and filled with light. Lautner’s concrete Elrod house is nestled into its ridgetop site as if it grew there — and then had a great sculptor finish it!

Richard Neutra
Another great Los Angeles architect built one of his masterpieces, the steel and glass Kaufmann house, in Palm Springs in 1947. The Kaufmanns were among the greatest architectural patrons of the 20th century, having commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build Fallingwater.

Donald Wexler
An engineer with the soul of an artist. His all-steel tract homes are one of the best and most livable prefabricated houses that ever got built. His office was in Palm Springs.

E. Stewart Williams
Fascinated by Scandinavian architecture, Williams brought a sense of materials and textures to his spacious designs. His offices was in Palm Springs.

MID: We heard you know a thing or two about mid-century cars and road side attractions, is there anything thing you want to share thats not in the film?

AH: Set on the highway between Los Angeles and Phoenix, Palm Springs has a great collection of car-oriented architecture, including motels, gas stations (like Frey’s at the entry to town), car washes, neon signs, and car dealerships. And Raymond Loewy and his staff designed the Avanti in Palm Springs!

MID: What will you be speaking about at the film screening?

AH: I’ll be adding more commentary based on the film, and answering questions.

MID: Is there anything people should pay special attention to in the film?

AH: If you haven’t been to Palm Springs, do pay attention to the natural setting — it greatly influenced each of these architects.


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