Desert Moderne

I spent this past weekend in Palm Springs (for a complex series of reasons that involved not going to the Locus Awards in Seattle). It was hot. –Though not too hot. We lounged by the pool, took in the sun, lunched al fresco, trolled the night hours, met Tom Bianchi, and took an architecture tour. It’s a fascinating story: the hot, dry oasis 100 miles east of Los Angeles, nestled to the west and south by high mountains and serviced by an aquifer to keep all those golf courses green, the city grew gradually since the early 20th century, and was in the post-WWII era a haven for modernist architects such as Richard Neutra, Albert Frey, and John Lautner. At the same time the city was a refuge for Hollywood stars — under contract not to weekend more than 100 miles from Hollywood — who built vacation or retirement homes there, with lots of money to spend to hire those forward-thinking architects. Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, dozens of others. We took the van tour and saw many of those, though just as fascinating was the historical aspect of the ‘Alexanders’, homes built by the Alexander brothers to modernist principles but using standard floor plans in variations in what quickly came to be called ‘tract’ housing — without having researched it beyond what I heard on this tour, the very concept of tract housing, so familiar to me in the Los Angeles suburbs where I grew up, was virtually invented then, and there. (This website has a nice graphic on the left illustrating the variations on the basic principles of the Alexanders, running left to right or vice versa: garage, breezeway, windows, wall.)

I dwell on this here because of the futuristic aspect of Palm Springs architecture — it was a breaking ground for new principles, and many of the homes, 50 years on, still look futuristic and spacey — such as the Ship of the Desert and the House of Tomorrow (better known as Elvis Presley’s Palm Springs hideaway). There’s an early-space age, Jetsons feel to the experience.

Meanwhile, work continues on the website for an update to the awards index this summer, in addition to the now standard daily updates. (I managed to set up four days of posts, Thursday’s through Sunday’s, Thursday evening before the trip — sample reviews and interview excerpts — requiring only brief edits to the homepage to activate while away from home. Now that I’m back, more work-intensive posts will follow this week, including new in paperback, classic reprints, and the end-of-June new books page.)

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