At this time of year, 6:55 a.m. to 7:05 a.m. is when you want to look east; slanted, golden morning light will set the San Jacinto Mountains ablaze with orange and pink light. And it doesn’t really matter what part of town you’re in, since the rugged mountains dominate most views in Palm Springs.
Or so they tell me – I have trouble waking up before 7:30.
But I can tell you the quality of light is different here at any time: It’s cleaner, sharper, more vivid … but it can be cruel. The desert sun is all-powerful and it influences life decisions and design philosophies. Other things are different, too, such as the pace of life: “Frankly I just don’t know how those people live in New York or Los Angeles … it’s just a much more relaxed way of living,” offers architect Hugh M. Kaptur, who was born in Detroit in 1931 but moved, permanently, to Palm Springs in 1956, where he designed more than 250 projects, including a home for actor William Holden.
Perhaps it’s that pace that allows measured decisions free from knee-jerks, and a calm, sophisticated approach to heritage preservation. To that end – and taking a page from Robert (Less is a Bore) Venturi’s 1972 Learning From Las Vegas – there’s a lot Toronto can learn from Palm Springs.
Names such as William Krisel (1924-2017), Albert Frey (1903-1998), William F. Cody (1916-1978), Donald Wexler (1926-2015), and Mr. Kaptur are on the tips of many tongues here. Well, they have been for the past 20 years: “Doctors and lawyers and, of course, movie stars were all well known, but architects were not considered,” Mr. Kaptur remembers with a chuckle, thinking about his early years. “But the explosion of appreciation towards architecture – it was all brought on by the gay community when they came into the desert.”
And names aren’t limited to tongues: a Walk of Fame fossilizes them outside the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Center, which opened in 2014 in a restored 1961 modernist bank by E. Stewart Williams (1909-2005). It’s not unusual to see tourists stooped over, reading them, before they walk inside.
Toronto has a massive gay community and an equally large design community. And, although it’s a little threadbare, we also have a Walk of Fame. Yet, I seldom attend events where our modernist architects are honoured, and there are no architect’s names emblazoned along King Street West. Is Ryan Reynolds more deserving than Raymond Moriyama?
Since 2006, Palm Springs has hosted the immensely popular Modernism Week each February. The many house tours, which include interiors, are a huge draw. In 2015, I delighted in Mr. Krisel’s “Sandpiper” complex of 306 condo homes in Palm Desert, and 11 single-family homes by Mr. Kaptur (to name just a few). During the 2018 Fall Preview last month (yes, it’s become so successful an October weekend was added in 2014), I attended the self-driving Essentials of Palm Springs Home Tour and a walking tour titled Inns, Architecture and Glamour. In 2019, attendees will tour dozens of humble homes (often less than 1500 square feet), along with The Forgotten [Albert] Frey house in Cathedral City, and interior designer Arthur Elrod’s Elrod Escape in the Old Las Palmas neighbourhood.
While Toronto does Victorian well – I’m thinking of the Cabbagetown Tour of Homes – have Don Millers ever considered organizing a house tour? (The Vancouver Heritage Foundation has been doing a Mid-Century Modern Tour for some time.)
It sounds silly, but the 2009 opening of the Shag Store in Palm Springs had a galvanizing effect on the community. Shag (real name: Josh Agle), for the uninitiated, paints retro-style, California lifestyle scenes that sometimes contain apes, birds, charming drunks, tiki gods and sixties hipsters partying against modernist architectural backdrops. And 90 per cent of the houses I’ve toured in this modernist mecca feature Shag serigraphs on the walls. At a party I attended at the Shag Store last month, regular folk were dressed like characters in the paintings, sporting fezzes and loud dinner jackets; at the Mod with a Twist event – a series of mini presentations dealing with postwar topics as diverse as LSD and the Old West’s influence on design – folks were dressed in elegant vintage clothes.
The takeaway here is that Palm Springs’ residents know how to wrap heritage preservation and education in fun. Do we? And as great as it is, the Spacing Store (401 Richmond St. W.) can’t carry the entire burden of Toronto-boosting alone.
From the pioneering Orbit In, which opened in a refurbished 1957 building in 2001, and the Googie-riffic Del Marcos, or hipster-central Ace Hotel and Swim Club, to the more recent The Three Fifty, Palm Springs hoteliers understand that a significant percentage of people prefer authenticity, individuality and quirkiness while on vacation.
I’ve often wondered what a forward-thinking developer might have done with one of the old motel properties along Lake Shore Boulevard West. Build the condo tower, sure, but what about preserving the motel in front and operating it as a boutique hotel? The same model could’ve been applied to the wonderful (and now gone) Valhalla Inn or the Executive Motor Hotel (621 King St. W.). A city larger than Chicago should have quirky vacation options for visitors.
Unlike in Toronto, where it’s hard enough convincing people that glass, steel and spandrel panels are worthy of consideration, Palm Springs continues to expand its definition of what Mid-Century Modern means. Recently, Tahquitz Plaza (Kaptur-Lapham & Associates, 1974 and 1977), a sort of abstracted, Pueblo-style group of commercial buildings with thick, angled walls and heavily browed windows, was saved from demolition and renamed Kaptur Plaza (see https://goo.gl/pS5pNs for full story and timeline).
“People are seeing the economic benefit from recognizing the architects and their work,” finishes the 87-year-old Mr. Kaptur, who consulted on Tahquitz Plaza and continues to help youngsters who’ve purchased homes he designed before they were born.
“Architecture and art are synonymous; instead of creating art with a paintbrush or a pencil, we created with materials, real hard materials.”
Tickets for Modernism Week 2019 (actually an 11-day festival) are on sale as of Nov. 1, 2018. This year, the keynote speaker is Moshe Safdie, and the opening night, psychedelic-themed party will take place at the 1962 Indian Canyons Golf Resort Clubhouse. See www.modernismweek.com for details.
Parts of the author’s trip were paid for by the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism; it did not approve or review this article.