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
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