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09 Oct 2017

Midcentury Mecca: Palm Springs Architecture Shines During Modernism Week's Fall Preview

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Charles Phoenix: “Palm Springs is the ultimate place to celebrate midcentury style and design. Palm Springs is a mecca of midcentury style, and it’s where all the kingpins and fans gather each October and February (during Modernism Week proper).” Charles Phoenix: “Palm Springs is the ultimate place to celebrate midcentury style and design. Palm Springs is a mecca of midcentury style, and it’s where all the kingpins and fans gather each October and February (during Modernism Week proper).”

A lot of historical quirks went into making Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley the tourism mecca that it is today.

In the big-studio era of Hollywood, actors were contractually required to stay within two hours or 100 or so miles of the studio … which helped make this a haven for stars who wanted to get away. On the less-glamorous side, a tuberculosis sanatorium once attracted people here, thanks to the 350 days of sun and dryness our weather offers.

These quirks also helped, directly and indirectly, lead to the construction of a lot of midcentury-modern buildings—and these pieces of architecture will be the stars of Modernism Week’s Fall Preview, taking place Oct. 19-22.

The list of talented architects who worked in the desert includes William F. Cody, Albert Frey, Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Donald Wexler and so many others. These men were responsible for the layout of areas like the Twin Palms neighborhood. (Why did they name it that? Because each home had two palm trees in front of it.) Of course, the midcentury aesthetic went well beyond homes; these ideals were used in schools, civic buildings, religious buildings, hotels, cultural centers and commercial designs, too.

Why is Palm Springs today such a haven for this architecture—so much so that the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Palm Springs to its 2006 list of America’s Distinctive Destinations? This was a question I asked Charles Phoenix, a performer, tour guide and long-time supporter/fan of all things midcentury; he will have a hand in a variety of Modernism Week Fall Preview events.

“It’s really the people here,” Phoenix said. “Palm Springs is the ultimate place to celebrate midcentury style and design. Palm Springs is a mecca of midcentury style, and it’s where all the kingpins and fans gather each October and February (during Modernism Week proper).”

So how did this happen here? “Being in the desert, I think they were allowed to be a little more experimental and break the rules,” Phoenix said. “The minimalistic style appeals to the residents here, so they didn’t have to spend so much on the details. Remember, most of these homes were second homes.”

Since the 1920s, visionary modern architects have been designing sleek, modern homes that embrace the desert environment. The modernistic use of glass, clean lines and natural/resourced goods helped create an indoor-outdoor living style that many people love. However, midcentury architecture has not always been so beloved.

“During the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, this style fell out of favor; people thought of it just not being in style. Architects during that time thought that midcentury was yuck!” Phoenix said. “Fortunately, there are some people out there who realized that Palm Springs was a diamond in the rough at that time. During the 1990s, a group of people highlighted a couple of properties and a couple of neighborhoods and started to bring in people from all over the United States for architectural tours. Then it just started to snowball. Palm Springs is still being revitalized and recognized as the center of the universe of midcentury modern, and it’s where the lovers of this form gather.”

As these sensibilities have changed, Phoenix has found himself being pulled ever more toward midcentury design. During Modernism Week activities, you can join him on one his double-decker bus tours around town (if they have not completely sold out already), or for one of his slide presentations with actual Kodachrome slides, many of which were just given to him. Some of them appear in his newest book, Addicted to Americana, released on Oct. 3.

Modernism Week’s fall preview takes place Thursday, Oct. 19, through Sunday, Oct. 22. Ticket prices vary. For tickets, a complete schedule and other information, visit www.modernismweek.com.

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