mid-century modern in palm springs 09/2014

Modernism week through the eyes of a New England architect.


Donald Wexler-Camino Norte House


Attending Modernism Week earlier this year was a humbling experience for a New England architect. If the February sunshine were not enough to make me green with envy, block after block of beautifully maintained mid-century modern homes did the trick. It wasn’t only the benevolent climate of Southern California that allowed modern design to thrive. A number of factors came together in Southern California to bring modernism to such a peak.


Neutra and Schindler, Two giants of 20th century modernism emigrated from Austria in the early part of that century and both started out in Southern California working with Frank Lloyd Wright, but their brand of cutting edge design came into conflict with Wright’s more romantic vision. They went their separate ways and Neutra went to build his acclaimed Kauffman Desert House in Palm Springs in 1946.


There was a friendly competition between the half dozen modernists working in Palm Springs. While developing their individual styles, they pushed one another to better and more innovative designs, often taking inspiration from the regions burgeoning aerospace industry. The Palm Springs Architect Donald Wexler, who designed the house illustrated above, embodies the Palm Springs modernist spirit. The strict geometry with planes of painted masonry and wood siding provide a neutral canvas for the zen-like desert gardens of exposed bedrock, raked gravel and native shrubs. The planes of glass almost totally disappear, giving the forms of the home a pavilion-like simplicity.


Local builders excelled at this new vernacular of flat roofs, slender steel columns and aluminum window sashes. Builders often custom made these components before manufactured versions were developed, allowing whole neighborhoods of modern houses to be built relatively inexpensively.




Photos and text by Colin Flavin AIA

Flavin Architects