All about Modernism

What's Modernism, and how can you enjoy it in Palm Springs?

Posted By: Erin Lawrence Monday, March 28, 2016

Palm Springs is known as a modernist architectural mecca.  But what exactly is Modernism, and why is it such a draw?
Butterfly Roof






I enlisted an expert to help explore more about Modernism; I interviewed Lisa Vossler Smith, Executive Director of one of Palm Springs’ biggest events each year, Modernism Week.

Erin: I’m Canadian, and Canada is not known for it’s modernist leanings; how would you describe Modernism and modernist architecture to Canadians, or other foreign visitors?

Lisa Vossler Smith: Our brand of Desert Modernism is chic and timeless. It represents simplified, minimalist design with an emphasis on an indoor-outdoor lifestyle. Utilizing industrial and mass-produced building materials, such as steel, glass and concrete paired with the dramatic and natural beauty of the desert, midcentury modern buildings have an elegance and sophistication that is globally appealing.
EL: Are there certain architectural features which would allow someone to identify a building as Modernist?
LVS: Midcentury modern buildings in Palm Springs are most often single-story design, represented by flat roofs, and/or "butterfly" roofs that appear to be an inverted gable-style, as well as large glass windows with sliding glass doors creating an integration with the natural outdoor elements. Shadow block concrete walls create sun shades known as brise soleil.Modern

EL: What makes Modernism unique and different?

LVS: Modernism is unique because it is both nostalgic and historic in its origin during the post-WWII era; but it is also advanced and forward-thinking in its use of innovative building materials and modern design aesthetics.

EL: How common is Modernism or Desert Modernism in Palm Springs? Would Palm Springs be considered a ‘capital’ of Modernism in the USA?
LVS: Yes, I feel that Palm Springs is one of the American capitals of Midcentury Modernism because we have such a unique and well-preserved collection of properties. The period of architecture is represented in several different styles throughout the Palm Springs area. In some neighborhoods it is clustered together and feels more common or prevalent. There are beautiful enclaves and communities still existing that are comprised entirely of MCM architecture.

EL: What about the terminology? What is Desert Modernism? Is that the same as “modernist”? (Is Modernist the same as ‘mid-century modern’?) If not, how do they all differ?
LVS: "Modernist" typically refers to a person who designs or appreciates midcentury modern architecture and design. Midcentury Modern and Desert Modernism are very synonymous in Palm Springs - both referring to a period of architecture from roughly 1945-1970. Midcentury design principals were influenced by the desert landscape, stunning view corridors, and hot climate and seasonal residents developing a genre of "Desert Modernism" unique to this geographic area.

EL: What are your three favourite Modernist buildings in Palm Springs?
LVS: I appreciate all of them for different reasons and it is very hard to select favorites. Highlights for me include Frey House II by Albert Frey (above), Sinatra's Twin Palms Estate by E. Stewart Williams, and the Elrod house by John Lautner.
EL: Lisa, what do you love the most about modernism? What drew you to this style? You must love it quite a bit to be the Executive Director of Modernism week!  
LVS: I was raised in the Palm Springs area and have always loved of midcentury modern architecture and its unique characteristics in Palm Springs. I love the clean structural lines, the interplay of natural and industrial materials, and sophisticated design elements.  

EL: What kind of person appreciates modernist or desert modern architecture?
LVS: I find that Desert Modern design appeals to a wide variety of people - from the original owners of the properties to nostalgic baby boomers, to cultural aficionados and new enthusiasts - there is so much to learn and appreciate about the designs. Good design of any style should reveal its beauty and genius to you the closer you become and more familiar you are with it. We are often impressed by the stunning curb-appeal, but the magic unfolds as you explore and experience the buildings in person.


Indeed, experiencing these beautiful buildings in person is the best way to get a sense of the style and appreciate the uniqueness that this architecture brings to Palm Springs. I highly recommend taking a self-guided driving tour using the Modernism app or map that’s available. The app is available here for iPhones and here for Andoid/Google

What’s your favourite building in Palm Springs, or one you’d most like to see in person? Mine is a tossup between the Tramway Gas station and Bob Hope’s former home on the hill. Tweet me your fave @ErinLYYC.

A special thank you to Lisa Vossler Smith and the staff at Modernism Week for assisting in this article. Brise soleil image courtesy

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