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28 Jan 2019

The Hollywood-Modernism Connection: How Did Our Dusty Little Community Become Such a Hotspot for Modernism? Our Arts Writer Breaks It Down

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The Sinatra House. The Sinatra House. Courtesy of Beau Monde Villas

I love signature events, and they don’t get any more “signature” in the Coachella Valley than Modernism Week. It has become the defining celebration of the things this city stands for—iconic architecture, glamour, sophistication, occasional hedonism and complete freedom.

What is modernism? Wikipedia says this: “Modernism is a philosophical movement that, along with cultural trends and changes, arose from wide-scale and far-reaching transformations in Western society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the touchstone of the movement’s approach towards what it saw as the now obsolete culture of the past.” Modernism transformed every aspect of society and the arts—and it still permeates our thinking and world view.

Volumes have been written, discussed and debated about the movement. Modernism Week focuses on the architecture that arose after World War II but does not limit itself to that. With more than 350 tours, lectures, screenings and parties taking place from Thursday, Feb. 14, through Sunday, Feb. 24, Modernism Week is simply far too large to cover in a single article … or even a single issue of a newspaper.

After hours of reviewing press releases and schedules regarding Modernism Week, I was left with a question and a thought. The question: How did a dusty, remote village in the Mojave Desert become a world-class destination symbolizing modern style and misbehavior? The thought: The appeal of Modernism Week goes far deeper than just an appreciation of architecture and interior design.

Many people credit the Hollywood studio system with the invention of Palm Springs. Starting in the silent-film era, movie stars were elevated to the status of royalty, instantly recognizable around the globe. However, a series of scandals involving sex, drugs and suicides threatened the very existence of Hollywood, and major studios began writing ethics clauses into their contracts—and any infringement of the strict moral codes would end careers immediately. Studio spies and gossip columnists were watching every movement and action of these new kings and queens.

The studios also required that its stars could not travel farther than two hours from the studio without permission, just in case reshooting was required. However, the exuberance and freedom from the status quo of the Roaring ’20s was far too great to be contained by a mere contract, and the opening of a tennis club in a desert crossroads exactly two hours from Hollywood provided a perfect escape from the watchful eyes of studio bosses.

Spanish colonial retreats surrounded by high walls and privacy hedges soon sprang up, creating the neighborhoods of Las Palmas and the Movie Colony. A town grew to service the needs of the Hollywood elite who congregated here. Word leaked out to the public about the luxury, the parties, the affairs and the licentiousness in this desert oasis. The legend of Palm Springs took root, and people flocked here to catch a glimpse of it.

After World War II, a new generation of stars, still under contract, sought to re-create Palm Springs in a new and modern way. The war had created new technologies, and a group of young architects were eager to employ these innovations. Large sheets of glass and steel girders provided these architects with a new palette, and they invented a completely revolutionary style of building for the desert environment.

With the demise of the studio system in Hollywood in the late 1960s, Palm Springs experienced a decline. Several decades later, a new demographic discovered its charms: Gay men of a certain age began arriving. They were drawn here by the mystic history and the inexpensive housing. They began to lovingly restore the Modernist neighborhoods.

Palm Springs experienced a rebirth.

Today, Modernism Week draws fans from all over the world. While the amazing postwar architecture is the centerpiece, the art, culture and lifestyle are also celebrated. There’s something for everyone, from serious architectural buffs to simply the curious,

Page after page of events are scheduled over the 11-day run. As I reviewed them, I was impressed by the breadth of topics and experiences. Then it struck me: Almost everything that mentioned Hollywood, movie stars, the Rat Pack, Las Palmas and Movie Colony were already sold out … and this was more than a month before opening day. There was something going on here.

It’s well-documented that, as a society, we are beginning to value experiences over possessions. I would contend that a nostalgia for the glamour, luxury, risqué behavior and lifestyle of cocktails by the pool that created and sustained Palm Springs throughout its history still runs very deep. People want to experience what went on behind those high walls and privacy hedges themselves. Who can blame them? What better way to appreciate these innovative structures and the modern living style than an icing of excess?

So, take a walking tour. Attend a lecture, Watch a film. Learn about shade block. Have a cocktail at Frank’s house. Maybe indulge in some bad behavior. (Just make sure it’s not too bad.) Immerse yourself in the mid-century.

This is our heritage. These are our traditions. It is our gift to the world. I, for one, couldn’t possibly be prouder to be a part of it.

Modernism Week takes place from Thursday, Feb. 14, through Sunday, Feb. 24, at locations valley-wide. For more information, including a complete schedule and ticket information, visit www.modernismweek.com.

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