Palm Springs Modernism Week 2023: architects reveal desert’s best-kept secrets

As Palm Springs Modernism Week 2023 unfolds, we’ve spoken to architects and designers participating in the festivities to pick their brains about the desert city’s hidden gems

to celebrate palm springs modernism week 2023, we look back at this Poolside view the Riviera
Poolside the Riviera Palm Springs
(Image credit: TBC)

Palm Springs Modernism Week 2023 is about to unfold, and if you, like us, appreciate all things midcentury, then this is the place to be this winter. Running from 16-26 February in the sunny desert city of Palm Springs, this extravaganza of modernist architecture offers a slew of building tours, exhibitions, talk and parties to a backdrop of some of the finest 20th-century examples of their kind. The usual suspects are all there; as are lots of lesser-known gems of desert architecture that are available for visitors to discover during the festivities. 

One of Palm Springs’ finest, the four-bedroom Twin Palms, which was infamous as a party house during Sinatra’s second marriage, to Ava Gardner, features a swimming pool shaped like a grand piano

One of Palm Springs’ finest, the four-bedroom Twin Palms by E Stewart Williams, which was infamous as a party house during Sinatra’s second marriage, to Ava Gardner, features a swimming pool shaped like a grand piano

(Image credit: Victoria Sambunaris )

It's hard to pick just a few events from Palm Springs Modernism Week 2023’s jam-packed programme. The classics are covered through tours or presentations touching upon many of the well-established modernists of the era and region. Topics on John Lautner, Albert Frey, Richard Neutra, William Cody, and Donald Wexler and William Krisel are on offer – along with many more – while the discourse expands beyond Palm Springs’ borders and into discussions on modernism across the USA.

If you want to keep things local, book an exclusive tour of the Kellogg Doolittle House in Joshua Tree; and the directors of Los Angeles studio Woods + Dangaran are giving a talk about 'Giving Modernism a New Life,' inspired by their recent Desert Palisades residence, named Best Private House: Wallpaper* Design Awards 2023. For picks beyond California, events such as 'The Influence of Midcentury Modern Design on Photography' by photographers Jim Riche and James Schnepfare, or 'Catching Light' on the idiosyncratic work of Australian architect Iwan Iwanoff through the work of photographer Jack Love are waiting to be explored, placing modernism in a wider context.

gif showing three different images of outdoor areas of homes in Palm Springs

Iconic Palm Springs homes include works by Richard Neutra, William Cody and Hugh Kaptur

(Image credit: TBC)

To help you choose your activities, this year, we enlisted the help of six architects taking part in the celebrations to unearth the best kept secrets that Palm Springs Modernism Week 2023 and the desert region in general, have to offer. Here, they share their tips with us.

PALM SPRINGS MODERNISM WEEK 2023: HIDDEN GEMS

Alvin Huang, Synthesis Design + Architecture: Menrad House

Garden view of Menrad House and side walls

Menrad House

(Image credit: Darren Bradley)

Architect, founder of Synthesis Design + Architecture, and USC School of Architecture associate professor Alvin Huang takes part in a discussion that goes deep into the roots of the modernist movement. This is a genre highly influenced by Japanese design and architecture, and the relevant event, 'Stories Untold – Asian American Architects and Midcentury Modernism: Influential Design and Social Exclusion', part of PSMW 2023's official programme, focuses on the valuable contribution to midcentury Southern California's built environment by the population of Japanese heritage. 

As for his tip on what to attend, beyond his own event? ‘I got an award from the AIA many years ago, and as a result wrote this short piece for them about the architecture of William Krisel, who had sadly recently passed. During my research for it, I found out about Menrad House, which was designed by Krisel in 1957 in Twin Palms, and it really stood out to me,' says Huang. 

Escher GuneWardena Architecture: Pearlman Mountain Cabin & Noah Purifoy Desert Museum

Pearlman Cabin, Idyllewild (1957)

Pearlman Cabin, Idyllewild

(Image credit: press)

Ravi GuneWardena and Frank Escher lead Los Angeles-based studio Escher GuneWardena Architecture, a Wallpaper* Architects Directory alumnus, and have built their practice around their passions: architectural history, cultural topography and the art world. ‘There are three legs of our practice and they are all connected – there are no firm walls between them, one shapes the other,' Escher has said. For Palm Springs Modernism Week 2023, the pair talk about one of their works in 'The Paul R Williams Family Home Restored by Escher GuneWardena', which shines the spotlight on the restoration of the 1952 family home of Williams – the first Black member of the AIA (American Institute of Architects) who went on to create numerous residential projects for Hollywood celebrities. 

‘[My tip from the region's lesser-known gems] would be the 1957 John Lautner Pearlman Mountain Cabin,' says Escher, who has not only written and curated around Lautner's work, but is also a founding board member of The John Lautner Foundation, and, together with GuneWardena restored Lautner’s Chemosphere (1960) for Benedikt and Angelika Taschen. The pair are currently restoring Lautner’s own 1939 family home in Los Angeles. 

Pearlman Cabin, Idyllewild (1957)

Pearlman Cabin, Idyllewild

(Image credit: press)

‘The Pearlman is one of my absolute favorite Lautner projects! The small, round, wooden building (there are two small annexes: one a terrace, one containing a small bedroom and a bath) sits in the forest, surrounded by trees, and floating above some massive boulders. Lautner, who was interested in conceptually connecting his buildings to their natural surroundings, here used tree trunks to support the roof and to anchor an enormous folded wall of glass, and to echo the surrounding trees into the dwelling. The cabin was built as a weekend house for the Pearlmans, amateur musicians, and has very good acoustics. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is still owned by the daughter of the original clients, Nancy Pearlman, who will occasionally open the house to visitors (there is a website to make arrangements).'

Meanwhile, GuneWardena turns our attention to the desert outside Palm Springs. 'My tip would be the Noah Purifoy Desert Museum in Joshua Tree, about an hour north of Palm Springs,' he says. 'It's a bit of a scavenger hunt, once you turn off the main road. The last stretch is on a dirt road, but well worth the trek. The property was the home of the late African-American artist/sculptor Noah Purifoy, a significant figure in the 1960s to 1980s in the Los Angeles art scene. The site is scattered with hundreds of amazing sculptural works, pavilions and larger structures created only in the last 15 years of his life, when he retreated to the desert.

‘Also, I want to get a shout-out for the Palm Springs Modern Committee,' GuneWardena continues. 'It shouldn't be a secret anymore, but many out-of-towners don't know them.  They have a great app that guides you to the best midcentury finds in the city, like the Wexler Steel Houses, with a click of your phone.'

Craig Bassam, BassamFellows: The Integratron

the intergratron in the desert outside palm springs

The Intergratron

(Image credit: Craig Bassam)

Craig Bassam, co-founder of American luxury furniture company BassamFellows which he co-directs with partner Scott Fellows, is behind one of the surprise events that run alongside the official Palm Springs Modernism Week 2023 programme, but in a more off-the-beaten-track capacity. A house tour is staged at Desert Three, a Palm Springs home designed by modernist architect Jim Jennings, to introduce the interiors firm’s new indoor and outdoor collection. 

interior of the intergratron in the desert outside palm springs

The Intergratron

(Image credit: Craig Bassam)

Bassam's 'secret gem' is the Intergratron. '[It] is a fantastical midcentury-era domed structure, with an opening oculus at the top, and an elevated wooden floor. My partner Scott and I first visited this building in the middle of Joshua Tree with Wallpaper* US director Michael Reynolds. Standing within the structure, we experienced the ‘Sound Bath’ while looking up through the oculus, gazing up to magnificent night sky views of the stars. For some of us, we experienced total relaxation, others experienced anxiety, and others fell asleep. It’s a totally immersive experience within this curious, quirky folly, created by George Van Tassel in 1954. It’s well worth the trip out to the desert,' says Bassam, who is also a long-time resident of the city’s Rancho Mirage neighbourhood.

Woods + Dangaran: Edward Harris Pavilion, The Annenberg Center & the homes by Buff & Hensman

Palm springs art museum entrance lit up at night

The midcentury Edward Harris Pavilion at the Palm Springs Art Museum designed by E Stewart Williams, and restored by Marmol Radziner in 2014

(Image credit: Designed by E Stewart Williams)

Masters of contemporary Californian architecture with a distinct modernist twist, partners and studio co-founders Brett Woods and Joseph Dangaran are well versed in translating midcentury for the 21st century – see Moore House and Carla Ridge House – and are a deft hand at tackling the fine balance between old and new, modern and contemporary. The architects have been known to generate spaces that feel dreamily escapist and at the same time warm and comfortingly domestic – perfect for a 21st-century retreat. Additionally, one of their most recent works, the aforementioned Desert Palisades, is in Palm Springs. 

As a result, the pair had not one, not two, but three tips for us. They explain: 'Our must-sees would include the Edward Harris Pavilion at the Palm Springs Art Museum designed by E Stewart Williams, an incredible example of classic midcentury design with beautiful travertine stone. The Annenberg Center by A Quincy Jones is a beautiful example of architecture and landscape working together. Finally, we admire the work of Buff & Hensman and believe they are great homes that are culturally valuable – worth restoring and respecting. The post and beam construction really expresses the structure, and the floorplan was representative of the Palm Springs lifestyle.'

modernismweek.com 

Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture Editor at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018) and Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020).