Written by Christine Madrid French
“What recession?” was my first thought when I spied the long lines and overflow crowds gathered for the fifth annual Modernism Week in Palm Springs. Keenly timed to coincide with the worst of winter weather elsewhere in the US, the lucky attendees here bathed in the desert sun while enjoying a ten-day celebration of modern architecture that included tours, lectures, films, exhibits, and high-style martini parties.
The “week” is organized by a number of cooperating organizations and includes nearly 40 activities that appealed to everyone from the scholar, to the mod re-enactor, to the roadside enthusiast. Yet it was a series of events focused on interpreting and appreciating the designs of John Lautner that provided a common thread throughout.
Lautner worked as an architect for more than sixty years, including an early fellowship at Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio in Taliesin. The Michigan native quickly developed his own vision, executed in diverse projects such as the 1960 Los Angeles Chemosphere house and Googie’s Coffee Shop of 1949 in the same city. (Googie has since been adopted as the popular name for exuberant mid-century commercial buildings, notable for their gigantic windows, angled rooflines, and impossible-to-miss neon signs.) The Palm Springs Art Museum is the first institution to organize a comprehensive exhibit of the architect’s work – unveiled during Modernism Week -- featuring drawings, models, and sketches in his own hand. The exhibit and related symposium provided a close look at his ideas and their creation, with an eye-opening analysis of his years working with the master Wright.
Earlier in the week, I met with board members of the John Lautner Foundation to discuss the future of Lautner commissions nationwide (a 23-page list of his buildings is available on their website). Karol Lautner, the architect’s daughter, harbored no illusions about the complications involved in preservation but was notably optimistic that changes are afoot. The glowing reception she received when introduced was just one indication of people’s rising appreciation for her father’s work and his lifelong dedication to architecture.
The Retro Martini Party, held at the 1969 Lautner-designed Elrod House, was the highlight of my visit. The owner generously opened the doors to host a fundraiser for the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation and hundreds accepted this rare chance to see the house. I can say without reservation that this is one of the most unusual residential designs in the US. The hillside home is known for its trademark concrete disc that hovers above a multi-level space that opens freely to the desert through gigantic glass doors and overlooks the star-studded paradise of Palm Springs.
The property is best known by pop culture aficionados for its appearance in the 1971 James Bond film “Diamonds are Forever.” (See video clip at the end of the post.) The clear-span living room is the real star of the scene, which shows leading man Sean Connery battling two acrobatic ladies named Bambi and Thumper. The women cavort upon the interior rock formations and swing from the hanging light fixtures while placing Bond in a series of innovative strangle-holds. All three end up in the cliff-side pool, but the master spy perseveres and emerges victorious. Preservationists are hopeful that the house wins out as well. Though there are no current threats to this extraordinary residence, the property is not protected and is currently listed for sale at nearly $14 million.
The future of a number of other significant modern buildings in Palm Springs is secured, however, thanks to due diligence by the community, preservation groups, and the city. More than sixty buildings of all vintages, including a number of prominent modern designs, are protected by their listing as “Class 1” historic sites. Remarkably, however, there are no Palm Springs structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This persistent imbalance in the representation of “recent past” structures on our national list of significant properties is troubling and remains one of the larger issues that we are addressing under the National Trust's Modernism + Recent Past Program.
The success of Modernism Week in Palm Springs is an enviable achievement, and an example that I hope other communities can follow. My trip concluded at a meeting with Modernism Week organizers and the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism. We are working together to develop and circulate a post-event survey to gauge the economic return of the many visitors for the local community.
With figures in hand, we hope to “monetize modernism,” to demonstrate that preserving the modern heritage of Palm Springs not only helps us understand its history but also adds value to the city. See you there next year!
Christine Madrid French is the director of the Modernism + Recent Past Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is headquartered at the Western Office in San Francisco.