Modernism Week Palm Springs
One Of Many Exhibits From MW • Prefabricated Housing Recycled From Discarded Schoolhouse Modular Buildings
Built By Architect Robert Anderson
If you have not heard of this popular and expanding annual event, chances are you will in the future. For 11 days the famous desert resort city hosts a series of lectures, films, cocktail parties, fundraisers, exhibitions and vendor promotions which celebrate the growing obsession with modern architecture, interiors, furniture and industrial design. There is even an exhibit this year on the sadly lost world famous airline, Pan Am, so associated with the mod culture of the times.
How did this begin in Palm Springs? The small town of about 45,000 residents is a gold mine of mid-century modern architecture. It started in the 1950s when Southern California's post WWII economy boomed and an incredible architectural experiment called "The Case Study Houses" defined an optimistic and progressive cultural phenomenon unlike any seen since.
Famous architects such as Charles Eames, Richard Nuetra, Pierre Koenig and Rudolf Shindler contributed brilliantly to the Case Study program offering young and upwardly mobile families a chance to create lifestyles that truly engaged and appreciated the beautiful and gentle California climate and that expressed the celebration and expanding freedom that the new modern life offered. Cutting edge real estate developers capitalized on the blossoming trend by hiring lesser known architects to design new homes that were built in single developments of hundreds at a time.
One developer, Joseph Eichler, built mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area but managed to expand to the Southland completing in total over 11,000 homes in the Golden State. These houses are revered by many enthusiasts and affectionately referred to as "Eichlers". And in Palm Springs the most prolific and locally famous developer was the Alexander Company; these houses are affectionately referred to as "Alexanders". The Company built well over 2,000 new houses between 1955 and 1965. That is quite a significant contribution considering that the population of the resort city was only about 15,000 full time residents.
What is really fascinating about this movement is that these architectural fashions were replicated throughout the United States. Being a native Texan I can say myself that there were many houses of this influence built in that state also. But beginning in the late 1970s something changed, drastically.
Perhaps partly reflecting the election of President Reagan and his conservative politics the nation leaned to the right even in architectural expression. Post modern replaced modern by imposing classical references onto new buildings large and small. Home builders across the country mass produced quasi Spanish Mediterranean in the Southwest, Neo-colonial in the east, Famhouse in the Midwest, Craftsman in the Northwest and unmentionable abominations everywhere else. What happened to Modern?
I can vividly recall attending a realtor's open house in Orinda, California circa 1994. It was a home built in the early 1970s set on a cozy wooded lot in a very nice neighborhood, the exterior clad in redwood with large gently sloping shed roof forms over blocks of rooms segregated into public and private spaces. Large sliding windows and doors opened onto spacious wooden decks. The interior decoration was minimal and simple but generous and open. The price was easily 30% below other homes on the market of similar size and quality. The realtor exclaimed "contemporary is a dirty word, no one wants a house like this".
Oh really? I attended a lecture this morning where the presenter quizzed the audience. There were several people from other countries who traveled the globe just for Modernism Week in Palm Springs. There were many others from around the United States and then a handful of locals. Dwell magazine hosts an annual June convention in Los Angeles that is all about modern design relative to domestic settling that has grown in attendance each year and draws an incredibly enthusiastic crowd.
In my observation I believe the rebirth of the modern architecture movement trumps a fad and shows signs of lasting significance. Perhaps it is a cycle. The now famous and cherished San Francisco Victorian houses once faced neglect and disinterest ironically at a time when modernism proliferated in the 1950s and 1960s. But the once forgotten modern gems of Palm Springs have been being gobbled up since the late 1990s and with the broad interest in Modernism Week I suspect that it will continue.
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Steven Corley Randel