April 10, 2017

Photo Essay: A Modernist Bachelor Pad Above Palm Springs

As much as I love music, I wouldn't be able to narrow down my "Top 5" favorite songs if I tried.

There are too many of them that I love for too many reasons—transcending all genres and demographics.

With music, I can argue to the ends of the earth the differences between "likable" and "popular" and "good"—and, taking it further, the vast expanse between "good-sounding" and how well it was written, performed, produced, mastered, or mixed in a recording studio.

I know too much about music—from being able to read standard music notation and having been trained on piano, French horn, and voice to knowing how the sausage is made from my years spent on the business side—to be able to rank and differentiate. Instead, I'll theorize forever about authorship and reception theory and ear worms and nostalgia and context.

But when it comes to buildings, though, I can pick a few favorites. I've never designed or built one myself, and I haven't studied physics or planning or anything architecturally academic (at least, not officially).

I just know what I like when I see it.

Such is the case with one of my favorite buildings, the former North Shore Yacht Club on the Salton Sea.

That one was designed by Desert Modernist architect Albert Frey (1903-1998), the namesake of the "Frey II" house (built 1964) that's now in the permanent collection of the Palm Springs Art Museum.

It was the second house that the Swiss architect designed for himself in Palm Springs, the city that inspired so many of his mid-century works (including the former Tramway gas station that now serves as the Palm Springs Visitor's Center).

He had it built onto the side of the mountains that now overlook the art museum, so he could look out upon the low desert city below and gaze out at the mountains, which he said reminded him of Switzerland.

Reportedly, he was somewhat of a desert eccentric: a vegetarian and yoga enthusiast who liked to sunbathe in the nude, necessitating a bell down by the carport to be rung when visitors were approaching.

At only 800 square feet, the Frey II house is relatively tiny, though it feels incredibly expansive up there (where it once was the highest hillside residence in Palm Springs).

Like some of the works earlier in his career, it's really nothing fancy, per se.

It's more or less a painted, corrugated aluminum roof...

...on top of a glass box.

But still, Frey had to get special permission to build it from the City of Palm Springs, whose officials called it "crazy" before ultimately approving it.

The yellow curtains were chosen to mirror the annual bloom of the brittlebrush flowers...

...and the ceiling painted blue more for a connection to nature rather than for fashion.

With built-in furniture, Frey took the opportunity to be incredibly economical with his use of space.

He could've built a bigger place. He just didn't want to.

He wanted to have as little impact on the natural surroundings as possible—and to make the most out of the least.

So, he crammed a tiny kitchen and a tiny bathroom in there...

...hid a record player behind the head of his bed...

...and slept in the same room as he ate, listened to music, sharpened his pencils, and drafted his drawings.

And, in that room, was a boulder that he built his house around, making Frey himself as much part of the landscape as the landscape was a part of his home.

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Retreading Old Ground
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Photo Essay: A Modernist Desert Dwelling

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