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MODERNISM

Steel and Shade: Architecture Pioneer Donald Wexler at the Palm Springs Art Museum

A Southern California Modernist gets recognized by the desert community he helped build

By Mike Singer

With the design of sophisticated steel houses completed in the early 1960s, Donald Wexler, FAIA, became most known for helping define Palm Springs, Calif., as a center for mid-century Modernist architecture and prefab construction. Light, jazzy stabs at combining classic Southern California Modernism with the enduring dream of mass-produced, quality-designed prefabricated housing, the steel houses still captivate the local design community today.

But while the steel houses are an important part of the Wexler legacy, the more than 200 structures he designed over a nearly 60-year career are getting lots of public attention in this resort town of 47,000 residents. Tributes began last year when the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation organized and hosted a three-day Wexler Weekend, featuring seven events and Wexler’s 84th birthday celebration. More than 1,100 people attended, with 80 percent coming from outside of his resident Coachella Valley. Events included the screening of a new documentary film about his career, Journeyman Architect: The Life and Work of Donald Wexler.

This year, on the occasion of Wexler’s 85th birthday, the Palm Springs Art Museum has staged a four-month exhibit, funded in part by AIA California Desert. Steel and Shade: The Architecture of Donald Wexler traces his place in what Wexler calls the “golden age” of California architecture, from the post-WWII years through the 1970s.

Design that touches everyone

An impressive full-scale sectional model that recreates the folded plate roof and frame of a Wexler steel home forms the entry to Steel and Shade. This is just one of the models fabricated for the exhibit by 26 architecture students from California State Polytechnic University--Pomona, which houses Wexler’s archives. Palm Springs International Airport, which Wexler designed at the age of 37, the Larson Justice Center in Indio, Calif., and the Dinah Shore Residence are among 10 small-scale models in walnut and basswood. The exhibit includes working and presentation drawings, a video and stunning photos by Juergen Nogai, Julius Shulman, Hon. AIA, and Wexler’s son Glen Wexler.

“Many of these projects are being modeled for the first time,” says Dr. Lauren Bricker, co-curator of the exhibit and a Cal Poly architecture professor. “The students were excited to work with his drawings and with a master architect. Mr. Wexler personally came by daily to check on their efforts.”

“Since 1952, Don’s impact has been known by many age groups in the Coachella Valley, where he practiced his whole career,” says Sidney Williams, co-curator of the exhibit and curator of architecture and design at the museum. “I hear people say, ‘I went to school in one of your buildings, I served on jury duty in one of your courtrooms, I flew into the airport you designed.’ He is so widely known for the steel houses, but he also designed over 30 schools, used solar before it was widely popular, and was always sensitive to the landscape in a very wide range of projects.”

“Any type of job”

Although not the first to envision houses of steel, Wexler was one of the first to use site-assembled, prefabricated metal parts instead of the earlier, more expensive metal construction custom residential designs of Albert Frey, FAIA, Charles and Ray Eames and Wexler mentor and AIA Gold Medalist Richard Neutra. Although earlier mass-produced, pre-fabricated homes existed (Sears and Roebuck sold 70,000 catalog homes in the early part of the 20th century), Wexler’s 1,450-square-foot steel homes were professionally assembled onsite without buyer instruction manuals. In an experimental project with U.S. Steel to promote steel construction to developers, the Alexander Construction Company completed seven homes in the early 1960s, before the price of steel skyrocketed and made mass production economically infeasible. Jim Moore, creative director of GQ, was the first to renovate a Wexler steel houses he bought in 1993, guided by a set of drawings Wexler furnished. Now, after years of neglect, all seven of the 1962 steel houses enjoy landmark protection and have been restored.

Wexler’s versatility and pervasiveness was born of work-a-day necessity, as far as he was concerned. “When I graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Architecture in 1950, my professor said, ‘Now you are trained.’ But I wasn’t,” Wexler says. “I had to learn to run a business and be a politician, and I was totally untrained for that. I wanted to stay small and keep busy. I wanted to show that as an architect, you did a job the best you could and then you take on the next job, and that you can take on any type of job.”

   
 

     

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Reference:

The Steel and Shade exhibition runs until May 29, 2011.

Journeyman Architect: The Life and Work of Donald Wexler, a 66-minute documentary film on Wexler’s life produced by Design Onscreen, is now available on DVD.

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