Leo Zahn, a commercial director and filmmaker, was attending Modernism Week in Palm Springs, a celebration of the town’s unique architectural legacy, when inspiration struck. During a lecture, historian Alan Hess asked why architect William Cody, a brilliant modernist with an intriguing and esoteric body of work, wasn’t as well known as his peers, such as Donald Wexler. Why didn’t he have a film?
Looking for a personal project, Zahn decided to answer the call. His new documentary, Desert Maverick: The Singular Architecture of William F. Cody, which came out earlier this year, seeks to answer the central question of why Cody, who often created stunning work, hasn’t been more widely celebrated. Through interviews with critics, architects, and others, Zahn discovered Cody’s strength as an architect may have weakened his legacy.
"He’s not easily pigeonholed or identified with a particular style," says Zahn. "You know right away when a building is a Richard Neutra project. Cody did radical projects, curved structures that seemed the complete opposite of the 90-degree structures you find from other modernist architects. But, then a few years later, he does his take on the box. He’s not boxed in by any one style, which makes him hard to pin down."
Cody, an Ohio-born architect who graduated from USC in 1942 and began working in Palm Springs on the Desert Inn in 1945, was also seen as someone who went his own way. He didn’t take a purist’s perspective on design, and would take client’s invitations to design whatever they want, and go as far as he possibly can. Projects such as the curvaceous St Theresa's Church, or Googie-esque Huddle's Spring restaurant, show him breaking out of the straight lines that often defined midcentury modernism. And, at a time when the cadre of Palm Springs architects would help each other, passing on jobs or collaborating on projects, Cody rarely worked with others.
Cody's eccentric projects, along with his relatively early death in 1978 at age 62, meant his work hasn't been elevated and explored like his peers. Zahn hopes his film can added Cody's name to the canon of architects with unique, inspired takes on shaping the desert landscape.
"He engaged with Palm Springs, it inspired him," Hess says in the film. "Palm Springs was his muse, in a way."