Palm Springs: A Modern Oasis

Catching your first glimpse of Palm Springs, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s only a mirage – slender palms in the hundreds stand atop impossibly lush grass in a valley that is otherwise characterized by desolation, scorching heat and crumbling canyons. Despite its absurdity, this oasis is 100% real. Thanks to the underground water supply and the foresight of a few intrepid settlers, this unlikely portion of California has flourished as one of the world’s most unique desert communities. Aside from its geological assets, Palm Springs is now known as a mecca for modernism – presenting the highest concentration of mid 20th century architecture in the world. Driven by unique factors at play in a particular section of the Colorado Desert, a fusion of the indoors and outdoors is at the core of this leisure-centric movement.

Cradled by four mountains, this little pocket of paradise boasts 300 days of glorious sunshine a year, a pleasant average of 75°F and a jaw-dropping desert setting. Just close enough for comfort is the San Andreas Fault, which forces hot water up to the earth’s surface, forming natural hot springs. Attracted by the springs, Native Americans were the first to call the valley home over 1000 years ago. Some 500 years later Spanish explorers named the area “The Palm of God’s Hand”, which resonated with early American map engineers who recognized the abundance of California Fan Palms and the hot springs, thus re-naming the city Palm Springs. By the late 1800s, stories of the mineral springs’ restorative powers had traveled west, bringing visitors across on the new railway line from Los Angeles. Restless city-folk were soothed by the clean desert air, dry heat and open spaces; soon Palm Springs was revered as a health retreat.

“Aptly, the first modern hotel in Palm Springs was named the Oasis.”

A far cry from the lavish day spas of today, the first influx of health tourists spent their days soaking in the natural outdoor springs and their nights in modest campgrounds. From the get-go, a stay in Palm Springs encouraged the perspective that shelter was inseparable from setting – which in this case was extraordinary. Recognizing the demand for accommodations, a handful of entrepreneurs built modern hotels in a landscape previously dominated by Spanish colonial architecture. Aptly, the first modern hotel in Palm Springs was named the Oasis. Designed in 1924 by Lloyd Wright, Frank’s eldest son, the Oasis exemplified how new forms could thrive in Palm Springs. The hotel took into consideration the environmental context and the area’s bourgeoning resort identity, incorporating a drive-in, a garden and a rooftop terrace. The next decade of development continued to establish a desert modern style – one that blurred the lines between inside and outside by maximizing the desert sunlight and harmonizing with the dramatic landscape.

The predominately Hollywood based celebrities and east coast high-society clientele played a major role in the architectural movement. Among the elite vacationers were Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, John F. Kennedy, Dean Martin, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor. Attracted to the area for the seclusion – and for the mandatory two-hour studio distance for the Hollywood stars – they customized the blank canvas into their own personal playground. With plenty of California dreaming and money where their mouths were, they manifested a Palm Beach of the West Coast – filled with estates, swimming pools, golf courses, shopping centers and night clubs. The most cutting edge architects were hired to fulfill their lofty vacation-home dreams, including now-famous names such as: E. Stewart Williams, Albert Frey, Donald Wexler, William F. Cody, Richard Neutra and William Krisel.

“Richard Neutra’s Kauffman House is one of the best examples of modernist International Style adapted for the desert.”

Along with their own concepts, these architects applied the ideals of early modernists to the Palm Springs desert, referencing the architectural prowess of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and the prolific German Bauhaus school’s Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe in their residential and commercial building designs. Essentially three influences were at play: the Bauhaus’ governing principle that “form follows function”, the International Style’s rejection of ornament and California’s relaxed lifestyle. Built in 1947, Richard Neutra’s Kauffman House is one of the best examples of modernist International Style adapted for the desert. Its series of rectangular annexes and vast, sliding glass doors create a sinuous indoor-outdoor space and the illusion of floating above the ground. The house’s form is perfectly aligned to its function as an escape route from cold winters – it’s a place to let one’s hair down and to relax beneath the palms. By the time the Kauffman retreat was finished, the oasis of Palm Springs had become the desired retreat of the nation. Subsequently the city boomed, fuelled by an ever-expanding market of affluent Americans seeking their own slice of celebrity high-life.

Wealthy clientele, unchartered lands and inspired talent could have been sufficient to support such architectural excellence through the next three decades, but a fourth ingredient played a significant role – the technological advances of the post-war boom enabled construction and design boundaries to be pushed to extremes. Progressive materials such as steel, concrete and glass were favored for their integrity, leading to daring design elements like flat roofs, exaggerated overhangs, floor-to-ceiling windows and open-plan spaces. Undeniably functional, these materials also seamlessly integrated with the desert, acting as both frame and art. Donald Wexler’s series of steel homes in the 1960s are a prime example of this material purism, whereby the environmental and technological conditions dictated the outcome. Tested in Palm Springs, Wexler’s pre-fabricated light steel houses were an innovative solution to a nation-wide demand for affordable housing.

Since the ’60s, Palm Springs has become a far more accessible destination. Celebrities still flock to the sun-soaked getaway, but are also joined by retirees, spring breakers, Coachella festivalgoers and modernist enthusiasts. Although the scene today seems highly evolved from the area’s humble beginnings in the 1800s, the fundamentals remain; let nature inside, feel free to experiment and above all – relax.

Written by Amy Woodroffe
Photographed by Stephen Wilde

The Journal is published bi-annually and complimentary copies are available at Herschel Supply stockists worldwide. Enjoy the digital edition of Issue 4 (Spring/Summer 2015) in its entirety by visiting the archive.

View The Journal