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
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