In its midcentury heyday, Palm Springs's idyllic landscape and remove from the glare of Hollywood studio lights made it a seductive escape for the silver screen crowd. It was there that stars like Frank Sinatra indulged their need to "get away from it all, but not too far" (most, the story goes, were contractually obligated to be no more than two hours away from the studio at all times). Palm Springs’ private playgrounds—backyard oases twice enclosed by high walls and then again by the community gate—also offered the LGBT community a rare protected enclave: Four different properties there once belonged to Liberace.
Their homes, in large part, were built by a handful of hyper-localized architects: Albert Frey, Donald Wexler, William F. Cody, E. Stewart Williams, with a few cameo appearances from L.A. heavyweights Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra, and John Lautner among them, who developed a style now collectively called Desert Modernism. Even more than Los Angeles, Palm Springs provided the space and freedom to experiment in materials—broad expanses of glass, steel frames, corrugated aluminum—and notions of uniting the indoor and outdoor.
This colorful moment in the 20th century has become the city's claim to fame, celebrated annually during Palm Springs's Modernism Week, when tens of thousands of architecture fanatics flock to the technicolor desert oasis each February. In the last decade or so, in response to the rising popularity of modernism that many ascribe to "Mad Men," Palm Springs’ own rebranding as a modernist capital has grown exponentially.
Relatively recent preservation efforts revived buildings that had languished under decades of neglect: In 2003 the city converted Albert Frey’s 1965 Tramway Gas Station, with its dramatically parabolic roof, into a visitors center; in 2008, a pair of modernist enthusiasts rescued Lautner’s ailing 1947 Desert Hot Springs Motel and reopened it in 2011 as the luxuriously furnished Hotel Lautner. Modernism Week was established in 2006, and as icing on the cake, local radio station KWXY relaunched as MODFM last fall.
Modernism Week opens the doors to a few distinguished treasures—timed and (expensive) ticketed tours to Hotel Lautner, Sinatra's lavish Williams-designed estate, and Albert Frey’s final residence that beautifully protrudes from the rocky hillside. They've been carefully preserved to encapsulate a certain moment in time, and consequently, Palm Springs's origins as an extension of Hollywood.
Although the stars retreated en masse when Modernism fell out of fashion in the ’70s and ’80s, what becomes clear is that Palm Springs is still a movie set—rows of pristine, contrived facades illuminated by the natural cinematic quality of the sun. For the most part, interaction with the architecture remains on the surface: the double-decker bus tours offers just a glimpse of Neutra’s iconic Kaufmann House over the surrounding wall, which features a warning that the security system is armed, and signs at the Saturday-night cocktail party at a show house newly built from a Wexler steel-frame design warned that the furniture was not meant to be sat in. The space age-reminiscent KFC that echoes Frey's parabolic roof and graphic, right-angled storefront of the local 7-Eleven were both built in the 21st-century, demonstrating facadism at its finest. And, as happens on a movie set, when the lights go out the production ends: after sundown, the streets clear out, and the city goes to bed.
The Palm Springs flair for pastiche, however, is also embedded into its history. The curves of the Victor Gruen and Associates 1959 Bank of America were drawn directly from Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel—spiced up with a little glitter in the form of mosaic tiles—and down the street, a Chase Bank built in 1961 by E. Stewart Williams bears an uncanny resemblance to Oscar Niemyer’s 1958 Palácio da Alvorada.
Built on ideals of fantasy and retreat and a rejection of established ideals of taste, the Palm Springs spirit has, in one sense, shifted only slightly, from playground to amusement park. Modernism Week is akin to a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, recalibrated for the ultra-fabulous.