Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
Edwards Harris Center to Provide Year-Round Showcase for Palm Springs Architecture
A museum to honor the “Vatican of architecture” draws distinctions between Southern California Modernism’s past and future
By Mike Singer
When the Edwards Harris Center for Architecture and Design opens next year in downtown Palm Springs, Calif., the Palm Springs Art Museum will finally have space to display its considerable collection of architectural drawings, models, and photos. It also will be the first mid-century Modernist, standalone museum building in the United States dedicated solely to architecture and design.
Two years ago, the museum purchased the former Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan building, a 1960 glass-clad steel structure designed by Palm Springs architect E. Stewart Williams, FAIA. Stewart designed the original Palm Springs Art Museum (1976) and other Palm Springs Modernist homes, such as Sinatra House (1947) and the Edris House (1954).
The museum hired Los Angeles–based Marmol Radziner to restore and repurpose Williams’ now-vacant glass pavilion as a showcase for its growing collection of architecture and design-related works. The bank building’s distinctive features include anodized aluminum solar screens that provide solar protection while maintaining natural light with a glass curtain wall. Deep roof overhangs provide shade, at the same time emphasizing a bold horizontality. Painted steel columns and an elevated concrete slab make the structure appear to float above the ground
The Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Council, its largest member-driven council, continues to support the funding needed for this venture. City planners support it as a way to capitalize on events like Palm Springs Modernism Week that increasingly draw architectural tourists to this Southern California desert resort town of 47,000 residents.
“This museum is part of a trend that says design matters, and is worthy of celebration,” says Marmol Radziner’s Leo Marmol, FAIA. “This will be a standalone museum that provides recognition of architecture in a mid-century context.”
Marmol helped put Palm Springs back on the architectural map in the 1990s with his restoration of Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House. The house was built in 1946, a decade after the Kaufmanns commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build their Fallingwater home at Bear Run in Pennsylvania.
Local architects see museum as building on a rich legacy
For Palm Springs’ current generation of architects, the planned museum is a reminder of both the Modernist legacy they inherited and the evolving nature of architectural practice. Ana Escalante, AIA, of Escalante Architects, works in a Palm Springs office building that has been occupied by architects since the 1950s, including Albert Frey, FAIA.
“I feel like we live in the Vatican of architecture,” Escalante says. “We have accumulated this incredible repertoire of architecture, and now there is a renaissance. There is a high concentration of wealth, alternative lifestyles, an extreme climate, and the freedom to design buildings in faraway desert places.”
Yet she and other architects must contend with issues that were foreign to previous Southern California Modernists: stringent building codes and community review boards, evolving populations of year-round versus seasonal residents, and contemporary sustainability requirements. Today’s real estate market hardly resembles the unabashed 1960s car-culture optimism that came with low gas prices and huge tracts of undeveloped land that could be bought on the cheap. This typical postwar arrangement meant that architects could experiment with large-scale tract developments, working as master builders and designing entire neighborhoods.
Lance O’Donnell, AIA, of o2 Architecture, lives in Palm Springs’ only LEED Platinum house. Like Neutra’s nearby Kaufmann House, the home O’Donnell designed for himself and his family enjoys strong indoor-outdoor relationships and walls of glass framing mountain vistas. But as much as he endorses the new museum’s celebration of California Modernists like Neutra, he notes how the original profile of Palm Springs architects as master builders is changing.
“Although the master builder idea was still there when I went to school, there’s been a shift to much more of a team approach, and there are a lot more people at the table working together to tackle a more complicated set of issues,” O’Donnell says. “In the past, energy savings and sustainability were not the concerns like today. There was no California Title 24 energy law mandating energy usages. You didn’t have wind tunnel modeling experts, or technology consultants, or facilities managers at the table as you do today. Clients are looking more for leadership from architects, and communications skills are paramount.”
New technologies, new systems, and new efficiencies are driving the next generation of architects, where sustainability and energy efficiency is key. Pam Touschner, FAIA, a principal at DLR Group in Riverside, Calif., points out how technology and sustainability criteria—as much as shape and form—now determine what makes quality design. “In schools and office buildings, they are no longer designed as windowless spaces or hermetically sealed buildings because technology has empowered us with new systems,” she says. “Five years ago, we would have talked about sustainability, but not necessarily told the client about it. Today, we are engaging in that conversation in every project. We often say, ‘Give us your energy bills, so we can look at particular months and analyze particular systems.’”
Moving ahead with a sustainable vision
At the former Santa Fe Savings and Loan Building, Marmol’s firm has already removed office dividers and carpeting, creating one large, open space and revealing the original terrazzo floor. Plans include adding an elevator, restoring the perimeter retaining walls, and installing a museum book and gift shop inside the old bank vault. Marmol is restoring the building with the help of Williams’ original drawings, as well as Julius Shulman’s, Hon. AIA, black-and-white photographs.
Williams originally designed an open glass pavilion to make the bank appear more transparent than the traditional granite- and limestone-clad financial institution. During the year ahead, Marmol Radziner will focus on environmental sustainability and energy efficiency, transforming that glass- and-steel building into a leading example of innovative, sustainable design that respects the past and embraces current technology.
The museum maintains the archives of both Williams and Albert Frey, and there are plans for a research library in the basement of the current building that will make their work available for study. If all goes as planned, the Modernist masters will be housed in newly ventilated space surrounded by thermally insulating glass in a building that looks as Modern as it did in 1960, and is as technologically current as the times demand in 2013.
Visit the Palm Springs Modernism Week website.
Visit the AIA Committee on Design website on AIA KnowledgeNet.
Visit the AIA Historic Resources Committee website on AIA KnowledgeNet.