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Palm Springs is lush with visual cues that explain modernism’s enduring mystique


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Above, a bedroom with a view of desert vegetation at the Kirk Douglas House (top left); the Kaufmann house (centre); Desert X installations by Rana Begum (bottom left) and Matt Johnson (bottom right).Deborah Wang/The Globe and Mail

Palm Springs is a land of extremes. There’s the flatness of the desert, where the city lies, and the mountain ranges that frame it. It’s naturally dry and artificially lush – raw and manicured. The vast blue sky is interrupted by skinny palms that feel, inconceivably, like they’re floating. These dissimilar elements create jarring juxtapositions. That’s one of the remarkable qualities of the Desert X art biennial in the Coachella Valley. The program of newly commissioned work brings large-scale pieces into the desert from March through early May. Its installations draw out the desert’s barren qualities, expanding the vastness of the ground below and the sky above. At the Parker Palm Springs hotel, layers of contrast – grassy lawns bordered by a tangle of hedges, pocked with palm trees and a snowy mountain beyond – are part of the richness of its vast grounds. Outside architect Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann house, the land is built-up with oversized cacti and boulders, forming a topography that camouflages its stature.

Read also: Palm Springs homeowners open up their mid-century pads


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Above, seating in the Kirk Douglas House (top left and bottom left); facades in Canyon View Estates (top right, middle left and bottom); a waffle ceiling (centre) and Bertoia sculpture (middle right) at Sunnylands; the Parker Palm Springs (bottom right).Deborah Wang/The Globe and Mail

Palm Springs embraces white surfaces that reflect sun, keep buildings cool and add to the brilliance of the natural environment. Daylight bouncing off patterned breeze blocks, smooth walls, exposed beams, cantilevered roof slabs and shade structures results in long, hard shadows. At the Kirk Douglas house, ivory terrazzo floors and a painted-out ceiling sandwich its casual furniture groupings and views of the verdant yard. The effect distills the city’s sense of modernism and how the mid-century style was adapted to homes built for desert life. Warm temperatures year-round allow for a constant connection to the outdoors through floor-to-ceiling windows but also ample overhangs and concrete screens that protect inhabitants from strong rays and peering eyes. White buildings create a backdrop for an explosion of prickly cacti, manicured lawns and palms of every species and size. At the Annenberg residence on the Sunnylands estate, a stoic white block wall backs a Harry Bertoia sculpture with the formal qualities and organic energy of these plants.


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Joshua Tree National Park (top left); ball cacti at Sunnylands (top right); a poolside patio at Hermann Bungalows (centre); theexterior of Frey House II (bottom left); a greenhouse at Moorten Botanical Garden (bottom right).Deborah Wang/The Globe and Mail

Palm Springs is heaven for plant lovers. The presence of cacti and succulents is inescapable and their practicality – absorbing and storing large amounts of water giving them the ability to go without sustenance for long periods of time – captures the resourcefulness of living in the California desert. The more recognizable varieties – Saguaro and Pencil cacti – dot roadways and sidewalks, while more extraordinary, lush and sometimes dangerous specimens can be found in nearby Joshua Tree National Park, where two desert ecosystems – the Mojave and the Colorado – come together. At Sunnylands, there are dizzying rows of the golden ball cactus. At Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium, the diversity of agave plants becomes immediately apparent. Endless potted specimens can be found accenting hidden courtyards downtown. At Frey House II, the second home that architect Albert Frey built for himself and donated to the Palm Spring Art Museum upon his death, a row of aloe defines a threshold between the rocky mountain terrain and the corrugated siding of the house.

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