Positively Palm Springs

West
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
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John Lautner’s 1968 Elrod House in Palm Springs. (Courtesy Palm Springs Art Museum)

We are just back from three sunny, margarita-and-architecture-filled days in Palm Springs. This small desert city was barely a mirage until the arrival of Liberace, Frank Sinatra (you can rent his house for $1,900 a night), and air-conditioning helped make it a popular resort in the 1950s. But the clear warm desert air (and wealthy patrons) seemed to lend itself to visionary modern architecture. And so its residential side streets were soon dotted with luxurious domestic masterpieces by Richard Neutra, Albert Frey, John Lautner, E. Stewart Williams, and others. This influence—or perhaps it was just the spirit of the 1950s and ’60s—made modernism the predominant house style (I want one) for the city at least until Taco Bell replicas supplanted it in the 1980s.

Airstream moderne: Vintage mod pods hit the road for Modernism Week.

But now midcentury modernism has made a furious comeback, at least as a symbol (or cult?) of the city, and it is celebrated every year at Palm Springs Modernism Week. The fifth annual gathering just ended, and it was a huge success, according to Jacques Caussin, chair of the event, who says that in Palm Springs, “The appetite for anything modern, whether architecture or design, is insatiable.”

John Lautner making a model of the Abby Beecher Roberts House for Wright’s Broadacre City, 1935. (Courtesy Palm Springs Art Museum)

In addition to tours of midcentury masterpieces, the week featured a gathering of vintage Airstream trailers (I want one of these too), and the Palm Springs Art Museum opened  Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner, an exhibition on the California architect’s career that previously wowed critics at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Curated by Frank Escher, the administrator of the Lautner Archives, and Nicholas Ohlsberg, the show is a revelation. Beautifully installed with eye-level drawings on wooden plinths, the exhibit also includes large models meant to allow heads to enter; you peer out to see videotapes of the houses’ actual views.

The exhibit (and its excellent accompanying Rizzoli catalogue) begins with Lautner’s early Wisconsin Log Cabin, and moves on to his internship with Frank Lloyd Wright and earliest experimental houses, persuasively making a case for the architect’s unique brilliance as a residential and commercial designer. The exhibit is on view through May 23.

One Response to “Positively Palm Springs”

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