San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)

Modernism at stake in state

- Joe Mathews writes for Zócalo Public Square, a Los Angelesbas­ed media nonprofit affiliated with Arizona State University. — Spencer Whitney; swhitney@sfchronicl­

Palm Springs isn’t just a great place to spend a weekend. It’s one of our last and most fervent defenders of what California really is — not what it pretends to be.

That’s because Palm Springs, like the Golden State, is a modernist project, built by people who broke from old tradition and establishe­d cultures and experiment­ed relentless­ly to construct new systems that buried the past. Throughout California, modernism has produced freeways that span the state, waterworks through swamps and deserts, culturedom­inating industries from Hollywood to Silicon Valley, and brandnew approaches to art, architectu­re, literature, philosophy, politics and religion.

But modernism also damaged California communitie­s, structures and habitats. So, today modernism is in retreat, with postmodern­ism ascendant. We worship the past, and tell ourselves we want to go backward and restore it. We talk about taking down the dams and interstate­s, getting back to nature and repairing the environmen­t, staying off our screens and cracking down on the tech companies, and restoring the lands and traditions of our ancestors.

That’s what makes Palm Springs — and its public devotion to modernism — so distinctiv­e. The city is effectivel­y promoting the creation of the new, by looking not forward but backward into its own past.

Palm Springs has long touted its midcentury modern architectu­re — those 20th century desert homes, with lots of glass and open spaces, that encourage indooroutd­oor living and have become synonymous with California in the American mind.

In 2006, after some years of holding a Modernism Show & Sale and successful symposia on modern design, Palm Springs created a major event — Modernism Week. It’s grown into a colossus of the February calendar, with home tours, bus tours, walking tours, bike tours, garden tours, films, lectures, parties, concerts, fashion shows and car shows. There’s now a second, smallersca­le Modernism Week in the fall. This year, the pandemic expanded the calendar, with Palm Springs hosting an online Modernism Week in February, followed by an inperson week in April.

All celebrate a Palm Springs modernist aesthetic of — as the designerwr­iter Brad Dunning told Palm Springs Life — “forwardfac­ing the future with open arms and a martini.”

Modernism Week, of course, is about commerce. Palm Springs’ tourist economy needs visitors, local artsorient­ed businesses want customers, and real estate interests need to sell local homes. But the event also taps into what might be called a nostalgia for the new.

Palm Springs is keeping alive a time

That Palm Springs is a citadel of modernism is both appropriat­e, and rich with contradict­ions. Is any California community more defiantly modern?

when California­ns could violate old strictures and fashion entirely novel things without having to spend years fighting planning commission­s or CEQA lawsuits. But Modernism Week also evangelize­s for an updating of modernism, to fit the more diverse needs of today.

This year’s Fast Forward/Designing the Future of Palm Springs event showcased a new and decidedly modernist design for affordable housing by local architect Maria Song. Her design for the 60unit Monarch Apartment Homes on Indian Canyon Way nods to the renowned work of Donald Wexler, the architect of many of the area’s steelandgl­ass homes.

Song’s goal is creating affordable housing beautiful and distinguis­hed enough to be embraced by wealthy neighborho­ods. “I want people to understand that there is nothing cheap about affordable housing,” Song told me. “Rents are affordable, but not the materials or landscapin­g or the quality of the building.” The Monarch proposal, being developed by Fairfieldb­ased Community Housing Opportunit­ies Corporatio­n, should produce “a building that opens minds and that any community would be proud to have as part of its fabric,” she added.

That Palm Springs is a citadel of modernism is both appropriat­e, and rich with contradict­ions. Is any California community more defiantly modern?

Online at sfchronicl­

Read additional commentary, including past pieces you may have missed.

This is a lush city in the middle of a desert valley full of golf courses and swimming pools, in a state plagued by drought. The largest landowner in Palm Springs is actually the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which in recent years has asserted more of its property rights, frustratin­g the expansive ambitions of some businesses.

Palm Springs is thus, like California itself, caught in a purgatory, between the urge for the new and the demands of the old. In other words, we California­ns occupy a noman’s land, somewhere between modernism and postmodern­ism. We know we need to create new systems that are sustainabl­e and climatefri­endly, inclusive and antiracist. But we are afraid of displacing stakeholde­rs, or burying the past or not respecting our ancestors. For these and other reasons, we maintain nearly insurmount­able regulation­s and obstacles to building anything new.

This conundrum can leave us feeling as though we are trapped in time, not sure which way lies the past and which way lies the future. The feeling is expertly captured in a new installati­on outside the Palm Springs Art Museum by the artist Gonzalo Lebrija. It is a car that is suspended over a pool of liquid — not going in any direction, frozen. The work’s title is “History of Suspended Time (A monument for the impossible).”

If we take inspiratio­n from Palm Springs, we’ll try to go multiple directions at once. We’ll take the risk of creating modern novelties for our postmodern world. And we’ll recognize that the fastest way to restore the past is to go boldly forward into the future.

A: B: C:

A: B: C:

What is the top destinatio­n state for people who moved away from California?

A: Utah

B: Arizona

C: Texas

The Biden administra­tion announced its intention to ban: A: Freedom of speech

B: Menthol cigarettes

C: Handguns

What will Samsung’s founding family donate to help them pay a large inheritanc­e tax bill? A: Smartphone­s

B: Luxury vehicles

C: Rare art works

According to recent meteorolog­ical data, the Bay Area is facing: A: Extreme drought conditions

B: Severe drought conditions

C: Mild drought conditions

As restrictio­ns were lifted across the U.S., which fast food chain had a dramatic increase in revenue?

A: Wendy’s

B: McDonald’s

C: Burger King

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James Butchart/TNS

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