Palm Springs Desert Modernism

Thoughts on Palm Springs’ Architectural History:

Palm Springs is the home of various genres of modern architectural work. It’s interesting to drive around Palm Springs and sees some projects influenced by early modern “international style” principles and go around a corner and see some expressive and playful concrete work which fits into a later period of modern architecture. the influence of master works of architecture is very obvious in Palm Springs. The most blatant example is on Palm Canyon Drive where you’ll find a knockoff of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel taken straight from France and brought to Palm Springs in the form of a bank.

Desert Modernism:

Desert Modernism takes what works from early Modernism and applies it to our desert landscape in Palm Springs. For many of the midcentury architects here that meant using an abundance of glass, clean modern lines throughout their design while maintaining adequate overhangs and shading to protect the architecture from the deserts intense sunlight. The most charming feature of Desert Modernism is the importance of the indoor outdoor relationship. This is epitomized by the Kaufmann House but was equally important to many of the local architects of the time.

The Kaufmann House by Richard Neutra is the most widely known piece of architecture in the area and for good reason. It is a very important piece of architecture that looked at buildings as vital to the health of its inhabitant. John Lautner is another big-name architect with projects in palm springs. He recently had a well put together exposition of his work at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The aforementioned architects are well known among any architectural and easiest to circle and have helped to put Palm Springs on the map in terms of architectural history.

Historical Architects in Palm Springs:

There is also a highly regarded cast of characters in the Palm Springs modernist scene that are spoken of on the same level as Neutra and Lautner. I referred to these as the local heroes of Palm Springs architecture. They have various high-quality projects in the Coachella Valley but are relatively unknown outside of their home turf. A large part of this is because they did not push the envelope as to what architecture could be during their careers as much as the Neutra’s, Lautner’s and Corbusier’s of the modern movement.

Below is a short (and incomplete) list of the big-name and local hero architects that gave Palm Springs its modern style:

      • Richard Neutra
      • John Lautner
      • Albert Frey
      • Donald Wexler
      • Bill Krisel
      • ‘Wild’ Bill Cody
      • A. Quincy Jones
      • George and Robert Alexander (Modern Developers)
      • E. Stewart Williams


The great thing about the abundance of projects in Palm Springs is that the topic of architecture is discussed and understood by most inhabitants and visitors to the city. This is largely due to the city of Palm Springs and various artificial committees within the city celebrating the architectural heritage and history of Palm Springs and the region. Support for Palm Springs modern architecture materializes early each year in the form of Palm Springs Modernism week. This event transforms the city into a showcase in celebration of its best architectural works even if it becomes a bit retro and cliché at times. That does not mean it is not enjoyable. Various modern themed parties, lectures and tours take place throughout the city. It has become quite a festivity and is a major attraction for tourists around the world. I cannot think of another place that celebrates architecture in this fashion.

Palm Springs Architectural Groups, Activists and Committees:

If you are interested in partaking in the various festivities, events, lectures and awareness of modern art capture in Palm Springs there are various groups to be aware of. While many of these have overlap in scope they each have their own goals and characteristics. Most of these require membership but also feature public events throughout the year if you’d like to see what they do for joining.

• Palm Springs Modern Committee,

• Palm Springs Preservation Foundation

• Palm Springs Historical Society

• PS Museum Architecture & Design Committee

While these committees are based in activism and preservation of architecture they are also a great way to meet like-minded people interested in architecture and design.

The influences of Palm Springs architects on the current cityscape is quite interesting. It can be seen for better or for worse in almost every new project that is constructed in the area. I found this most interesting when stumbling across a stylized strip mall for the first time. Extra design elements were added to the regular box stores to give it a Palm Springs Desert modern flair and character. The design did not solve my issues with strip malls in general but wasn’t I surprised to see that even developers in the region want to do something special when working with Palm Spring’s architectural past.

The downside of all of the fanfare and height over the residences and commercial projects from the 1950s and 60s is that certain elements of them are inappropriately as selling points for new developments. This can be seen in a view up and condo complexes in Palm Springs. A specific element, such as the accordion roof, is replicated needlessly across the whole development to give the salesman as well as the uneducated buyer the chance to say that they live in a modern development. Similar conditions can be seen at other new projects in the city. While I do think it is important to preserve and understand the architectural history of palm springs I do not think new developments should mimic them for the sake of sales. In my eyes this is the same as copying a task in the Mediterranean villa because a particular group of people have been conditioned to view it as the ultimate form of residential.

Palm Springs has a rich architectural past which focused on innovation in design and material use is being celebrated. The city of Palm Springs needs to return to that and encourage it in new projects, which happens but not exclusively, to keep the city relevant in the 21st century. The city of Palm Springs as well as the various architectural groups and committees run the risk of forcing the town to become a retro destination. If every new project has to pay homage or resemble what was done 50+ years ago we will not have another artificially significant design be erected in the city. There will not be another Kaufman house or formal concrete work by Lautner because it will not be able to get through the revisions and comments thrust upon it by the city and other activist groups.

Palm Springs is a truly unique city with a significant architectural history. It is important to understand what allowed Modernism to thrive in Palm Springs as well as the roots of early Modernism which took place many years before the first modern structure was ever completed in the desert. It is important to keep the discussion of Palm Springs architects alive, ask important and historical questions about precedents and key architectural innovations that took place here.