Modernism architecture in Palm Springs
© Jaime Kowal

The modern desert

  • TEXT SEBASTIAN HANDKE
  • PHOTOS JAIME KOWAL

Hot sunshine meets cool architecture in Palm Springs, where design-loving sun worshippers get together by the pool. We stopped by to say hi.

It all began with the oases, with water bubbling out of the Californian desert right above the San Andreas Fault. That’s why the Cahullia Indians have lived here for thousands of years. Later, much later, Hollywood stars followed: Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Kirk Douglas and many others searching for refuge from the studios roughly two hours away by car. Their strict contracts allowed them to travel no further. Here they were able to let go, unwind, run riot. Paparazzi were not allowed in, and life took place around the pools behind the houses, which are still the social focus of this curious settlement in the desert. If Las Vegas was the stage, Palm Springs was the private booth.

Perhaps that is why, when the golden age ended, the town sank into a long beauty sleep, becoming a winter residence for retired folks. Fortunately for the rest of us, because what makes the town so special would otherwise have fallen victim to the bulldozers.

Bathings shorts with print

Suitable clothing: Pools are the focal point of social life in Palm Springs

© Jaime Kowal
One of six Alexander Steel Houses built between 1961 and 1962

One of six Alexander Steel Houses built between 1961 and 1962

© Jaime Kowal

  “We call it the mecca of modernism,” says Robert Imber. Nowhere else will you find as many midcentury modern buildings in one place. The town is like an open-air museum, and 66-year-old Imber is the best museum guide. “We have everything that’s midcentury except skyscrapers and bridges, but nobody needs them here.”

Skyscrapers and bridges – nobody needs them here

Robert Imber, architecture expert in Palm Springs

Many of the buildings are famous – and open to the public during Modernism Week (February 16 – 26): the Kaufmann Desert House, the Tramway Gas Station, the House of Tomorrow, where Elvis Presley spent his honeymoon with Priscilla back in 1967. Palm Springs also naturally has its share of cheerful monuments to tackiness, created by Hollywood set designers who let their imaginations run wild. “There are rules,” says Imber, “but creativity is everything.” Usually, you can only guess at the interior from the look of a building, but in others, the attempt at pure minimalism is plain to see. “Take a look at the Palevsky House! It glides into the landscape and disappears.” Some of the gems here are for rent – you can stay at Frank Sinatra’s residence for upwards of 1950 dollars a night, if you like, but with Airbnb, you’ll pay less.

But why did all this modernism end up here? Strictly speaking, it was an accident of history, since modernism was popular when Palm Springs was booming. But the desert, the climate,
the light, Imber thinks, make the town particularly suitable. “One central idea of Modernism was that windows didn’t have to be part of a wall, they could be the wall,” he says. “Sit in one of these perfectly balanced rooms and a look over your shoulder is enough to make you feel part of your surroundings. It’s almost a physical experience.”

The Franz Alexander House was built as long ago as 1954

The Franz Alexander House was built as long ago as 1954

© Jaime Kowal
Robyn Celia and Linda Kranz in front of their Likker Barn in Pioneertown

Robyn Celia and Linda Kranz in front of their Likker Barn, which bands use for sound checks

© Jaime Kowal

Into the desert

  Driving out of Palm Springs is like leaving an island and heading out to sea. Just like the ocean, the desert engulfs you. High above Yucca Valley, fifty kilometers from Palm Springs, Robyn Celia and Linda Kranz run Pappy & Harriet’s on a winding road in the middle of nowhere. “It was tough to start with,” says Linda, “and I sometimes feel like I’m the only person in the world.”

She came here from New York in 2003, and the contrast couldn’t have been greater. “But this landscape, this sky, these colors! The desert changes with the sun, every minute.”
When they took over the property on the edge of Pioneertown, which once provided the backdrop for many a western movie, the building was a roadhouse for bikers and cowboys. Linda and Robyn sat down with the president of the local chapter of Hells Angels and told them they could no longer meet there if the struggling pub was going to survive. The bikers understood and took their custom elsewhere. “Nobody cares what anybody else does in New York,” says Robyn, “but we learned very quickly that as the owners of this popular place, we had a responsibility.”

Just before sundown at Joshua Tree National Park

Just before sundown at Joshua Tree National Park

© Jaime Kowal
The Pioneertown Motel, recently restored by Ryan Drobatz and Aaron Wood

The Pioneertown Motel, recently restored by Ryan Drobatz and Aaron Wood

© Jaime Kowal

The guests here are an unusually colorful bunch: families and soldiers, tourists and riders, people in from Palm Springs and music fans from all over the world. Robyn and Linda often serve the food themselves, and no one need feel out of place here, regardless what band is playing. Last October, Paul Mc-Cartney did a gig on the tiny stage – his idea. It’s on an evening like that one that you feel you have stumbled into a secret place.

Half an hour south of Pioneertown, Joshua Tree National Park feels like the threshold to another world. Joshua trees are found almost exclusively here. Stretching their gnarled branches into the sky, each one has such character you almost want to speak to them. We stop at Keys View to gaze across the vast Coachella Valley – then the sun disappears and the play of color ends. Again the desert looks different: cool and very dark.

Richard Neutra’s legendary Kaufmann Desert House

Richard Neutra’s legendary Kaufmann Desert House from 1946 seamlessly merges interior and exterior space

© Jaime Kowal

The new Palm Springs

  Once you’ve had desert sand in your shoes, you’ll never want to leave, they say. This happened to Chris Pardo, 38, an architect from Seattle, who came to stay in 2013. “Many millennials are interested in the modernist lifestyle,” he explains. Popular shows like “Mad Men” have fired enthusiasm for “a time our parents didn’t care about. We feel a connection to something we never actually knew.” Thanks to a handful of young entrepreneurs, the Ace Hotel, the Restaurant Workshop, the Bootlegger Tiki Bar, the luxurious Club L’Horizon and the shops in the Uptown Design District have brought new life to Palm Springs. Pardo’s various investment and building projects are changing the face of the town. While planning the Arrive Hotel, he lived in a house designed by modernist pioneer Donald Wexler.

“We’re new here,” says Pardo, “of course we encounter opposition.” Design experts abound here. For many residents the town is their hobby, but there’s often something compulsive about their quest for historical verisimilitude. “We are all here because we have fallen in love with this place. We understand its history and its special vibe.”

It’s the desert climate that creates the peace and calm that drew actors and retirees, and now brings weary urban hipsters to the poolside. “Driving in from Los Angeles, I feel everything fall away when I exit the Interstate 10 and see these mountains,” says Pardo. No one beeps their horn in this town that’s home to 44 000, but feels like a big city with its festivals, museums, markets, bars, restaurants, golf courses and airport. The people who live here “want to lead a quiet life,” says Pardo. Nobody wants Palm Springs to be anything like Las Vegas. “But they also want to go out on the town – that’s the paradox of Palm Springs.”

Palm Springs, old and new

1 Tramway Gas Station
2 Alexander Steel Houses
3 Franz Alexander House
4 Arrive Hotel
5 Kaufmann Desert House
6 Bootlegger Tiki Bar
7 Workshop Kitchen + Bar
8 Pappy & Harriet’s
9 Joshua Tree Park

Map of Palm Springs
© Cristóbal Schmal

Sebastian Handke was born at a very early age. He spent his childhood in San Francisco and the heartland of Swabia. Once it was over, he earned his living as a director’s assistant, a Flash developer, a musician and a journalist. These days, Sebastian is the editor responsible for Lufthansa Magazin Online.