Mod­ernist oasis

Wedged be­tween the moun­tains and the desert, Palm Springs is an easy three hours’ drive from Los An­ge­les. A home away from home for Hol­ly­wood’s rich and fa­mous, it at­tracted a host of the 20th cen­tury’s most fa­mous ar­chi­tects, who have left an in­deli­ble i

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - Arts - Story & Pho­tog­ra­phy Tom Fer­gu­son

As for­eign des­ti­na­tions go, Palm Springs is rel­a­tively ac­ces­si­ble from Aus­tralia. Three hours from Los An­ge­les, the town is renowned for mid-cen­tury mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture, desert, moun­tains, swim­ming pools and blue sky with an aver­age of 354 sunny days a year. As we drive east through the end­less sub­urbs of LA to­wards the San Jac­into moun­tain range, though, the weather is not promis­ing. It’s cold, wet and cer­tainly not wor­thy of our rented con­vert­ible, but as we cut through the San Gor­gonio Pass the clouds are held back by the range and, like some promised land where the sun al­ways shines, a wide strip of blue sky graces our fi­nal 10km off the in­ter­state and down high­way 111 into Palm Springs.

The well-known Palm Springs mi­cro­cli­mate goes a long way to­wards ex­plain­ing the es­tab­lish­ment and con­tin­u­ing pop­u­lar­ity of the town, wedged be­tween moun­tain and desert and only 180km east of LA. The moun­tain range both blocks win­ter storms and pro­vides much-needed shad­ing on sum­mer af­ter­noons when the tem­per­a­ture reg­u­larly rises above 40C. The dry desert heat en­cour­aged the es­tab­lish­ment of health re­sorts in the early 1900s while the prox­im­ity of the town to Los An­ge­les meant it be­came an easy get­away des­ti­na­tion.

The nam­ing of the Movie Colony — a well-heeled sub­urb just north of down­town — is tes­ta­ment to the fact that the rich and fa­mous saw Palm Springs as their home away from home, en­ter­tain­ing stars such as Cary Grant, Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Frank Si­na­tra. Even to­day the town is re­port­edly the per­ma­nent home of celebri­ties such as Barry Manilow and Bar­bra Streisand.

As the rich and fa­mous flocked to Palm Springs, so did their ar­chi­tects. One of the most fa­mous houses is the Edgar J. Kaufmann House by Richard Neu­tra. By 1946, Los An­ge­les-based Neu­tra was well known as one of the pre-em­i­nent ar­chi­tects of the mod­ern era and there­fore a nat­u­ral choice for Kaufmann when se­lect­ing an ar­chi­tect to de­sign his win­ter re­treat. Kaufmann was a Pitts­burg depart­ment store ty­coon and well-known pa­tron of ar­chi­tec­ture, hav­ing com­mis­sioned Frank Lloyd Wright to de­sign Falling­wa­ter 10 years ear­lier.

De­spite Wright hav­ing moved on from the mono­lithic con­crete-block LA houses of the 1920s, Kaufmann chose Neu­tra per­haps be­cause of his more mod­ern rep­u­ta­tion and his open, airy and land­scape-con­nected houses. Neu­tra’s de­signs are char­ac­terised by strong flat roof planes, large over­hangs and long el­e­va­tions of glass that seam­lessly con­nect in­te­rior and ex­te­rior, and the Kaufmann house is one of his most fa­mous ex­am­ples. Its strik­ing lin­ear geom­e­try is both in tune with the flat desert land­scape and am­pli­fied by the ever-present moun­tain range that forms the back­drop to many of Julius Shul­man’s fa­mous pho­tos of the house.

Sun­ny­lands in Rancho Mirage, a 20-minute drive from Palm Springs, was de­signed by A. Quincy Jones

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