The very mod­ern art of green­ing the desert

Palm Springs’ feast of mid-cen­tury style of­fers gar­den­ers a les­son in arid aes­thet­ics. By Joanna Fort­nam

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - GARDENING -

Any Bri­tish gar­dener who drops into Palm Springs in the Sono­ran Desert, Cal­i­for­nia, soon asks the ques­tion: how do they keep up­wards of 124 golf cour­ses so green? Could this the most shock­ing ex­am­ple of waste in a state where wa­ter is a highly po­lit­i­cal is­sue?

But there is no cause for alarm. It may be en­cir­cled by dra­matic moun­tains on a dusty plain of ground- hug­ging cacti, tamarisk and stunted beige scrub, but the town of Palm Springs is mirac­u­lously sus­tained by huge, deep aquifers. Th­ese sup­ply the mil­lion sprin­klers that keep the lu­mi­nously green lawns, high bougainvil­lea hedges and lush Tiki-style jun­gles re­freshed. Even din­ers at street cafes are reg­u­larly spritzed by a fine, cool­ing mist.

This Coachella Val­ley oa­sis has been a des­ti­na­tion since early Hol­ly­wood film con­tracts stip­u­lated that play­ers could live no fur­ther than two hours from the stu­dios. So Palm Springs, two 100 miles east of LA, was as far as it was pos­si­ble to get from the pry­ing eyes of stu­dio spoil­sports, ever on the look­out for bad be­hav­iour. Palm Springs be­came party cen­tral for gen­er­a­tions of wek­end­ing celebri­ties, – the Rat Pack in par­tic­u­lar – and a by­word for high jinks.

The hey­day of the sub­urbs where stars gath­ered to mis­be­have – Palm Vista, Old Las Pal­mas, Vista Las Pal­mas, Colony El Mi­rador, Twin Palms – lasted from the For­ties to the mid-Seven­ties. Not only was green­ery con­jured into ex­is­tence to en­velop th­ese lux­u­ri­ous neigh­bour­hoods, but a new style of home came to dom­i­nate, de­signed by a roll-call of ar­chi­tects – Joseph Eich­ler, Richard Neu­tra, Don­ald Wexler, John Laut­ner – who prac­tised a style now la­belled “mid­cen­tury mod­ern”. Bri­tain never quite em­braced its open-plan lay­outs, floor-to-ceil­ing glass and flat roofs; but iconic im­ages spread around the world.

As fash­ions changed, Palm Springs spent a few decades as a geri­atric and un­fash­ion­able town. It was awo­ken with a start in the early 2000s when a new gen­er­a­tion turned what we now call MCM into a jug­ger­naut trend that still shows no sign of go­ing away. To­day, Palm Springs is a boom town, with wealthy cre­atives vy­ing to buy and re­store to the last de­tail a cov­eted relic with ar­chi­tec­tural pedi­gree.

NA­TIVE FORMSDesert plants at Sun­ny­lands, main; Green Gables, far right, built in 1957, is open dur­ingPalm Springs Mod­ernism Week

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