Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
The Father of Desert Modernism, Albert Frey, at Palm Springs Modernism Week
One of International Style Modernism’s earliest acolytes settled in this design-savvy desert community
By Mike Singer
During Palm Springs Modernism Week in February, 48 tour groups visited the San Jacinto mountainside home of Albert Frey, FAIA. Visitors traveled up a windy road—up to 15 people to a group—to arrive at the steel and glass house Frey built in 1964 and lived in until his death in 1998. There, for 45 minutes, design enthusiasts from around the world learned about the architect by experiencing his architecture.
Frey spent years measuring the movement of the sun and the craggy contours of the rocks before he selected the site for his 800-square-foot Modernist home. The house is constructed of a simple steel frame with a steel corrugated roof that follows the slope of the mountain. Large spans of glass open up to a mountainside platform that serves as a deck for the adjoining pool, and a roof for the carport below. An enormous boulder from the mountainside juts into the house, forming a partial wall between the living area and the sleeping area. A bedroom light switch is set into the rock itself. All of the house’s furniture, including a record player, is built in.
Frey’s compact house is open to the general public only during Palm Springs Modernism Week, which explains the enormous demand for tour tickets. (Tickets costing up to $100 sold out within days.) At other times of the year, architects and architecture students can view the house by special arrangement with the Palm Springs Art Museum, which was bequeathed the house and its contents in Frey’s will. “Even when Frey was alive, he liked showing architecture students around his house,” says Sidney Williams, curator of architecture and design at the museum.
Frey lived in this house for nearly 35 years. Beyond the house tours, Palm Springs Modernism Week organizers made sure the public could also learn about Frey in multiple programs, helping put into a broader context the life of a still underappreciated designer often considered the father of desert Modernism.
From Zurich to Palm Springs via Le Corbusier
Bill Butler, a lecturer at the Palm Springs Museum of Art and former chair of its Architecture and Design Council, talked about Frey and his early influences at two sold-out lectures entitled “Unsentimental Journey,” in which he made the case that Frey’s house was a lifelong voyage centered around reducing the architectural vocabulary. In his lectures, Butler spoke of how Frey left the Beaux-Arts buildings of his Zurich childhood to attend engineering school in Winterthur, Switzerland. At 25, he moved to Paris, where he worked with Le Corbusier on Villa Savoye in the suburb of Poissy, and on the Tsentrosoyuz building in Moscow.
Frey was optimistic about Modernism’s future in the United States, and moved to New York in 1930, at the height of the Great Depression. Yet he found work right away with firm of A. Lawrence Kocher, then managing editor of Architectural Record. Their most famous project was the Aluminaire House. That residence—the first all-metal house in the country—was designed to promote Modernist housing ideas for the Architectural League of New York in an April 1931 exhibit, and later in the landmark Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Phillip Johnson–curated “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” at MoMA. “One-hundred thousand people saw that house,” says Butler. “It was the star of the show.” Built in just 10 days, the house was one of only two houses in North America included in the exhibition.
Frey first came to Palm Springs, Calif., in 1934 to design an office and apartment building with Kocher for Kocher's brother, Dr. J. J. Kocher. After completion of his work on New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1939, Frey returned to the California desert poised to capitalize on Palm Springs’ postwar building boom. After his first visit to Palm Springs in 1935, he wrote to his former mentor Le Corbusier: “The sun, the pure air, and the simple forms of the desert create perfect conditions for architecture.”
“He came here after rejecting the offer of a full partnership by Philip Goodwin, then one of the leading architects in New York City—Goodwin, Bullard & Woolsey,” says Butler. “He could have worked anywhere.”
Finding a home in the desert
More than 200 buildings followed, including the house of Raymond Loewy (1947), Palms Spring City Hall (1952), and the Tramway Gas Station which now serves as the Palm Springs Visitor Center (1965). Another historically protected site designed by Frey is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Station (1963).
During Modernism Week, sold-out double-decker-bus architecture tours were offered twice daily, driving visitors by Frey’s works and other important sites. In 2010, the City of Palm Springs posthumously awarded Frey its ultimate architecture honor: a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. The star is on the sidewalk outside the new Edward Harris Center for Architecture and Design, which will house Frey’s personal archives when it opens to the public in 2014.
“Of all the architects in town, Albert Frey was the elder statesman,” said Chris Sahlin, AIA, vice president of AIA California Desert Chapter. “When Frey first got [to Palm Springs], and built an office for Kocher’s brother, it was done in concrete in an International Style with a design aesthetic out of Europe. Frey was trained in that way, but the desert changed how he built and looked at architecture.
“Palm Springs became a testing ground,” said Sahlin, whose master’s thesis at Cal Poly Pomona School of Architecture included a study of Frey’s design. “Palm Springs was like a camp in the desert where he thought about metal tents. He started experimenting, particularly with his own houses here.” (Frey House I, built in 1941 and later demolished, preceded the current Frey house.)
“Some architects worked in the desert using the same home designs they used in other subdivisions in the San Fernando Valley, but Albert Frey built in ways specific to the desert,” Sahlin added. “Some of his buildings are put together, in fact, the way desert succulents grow, with one organic piece added atop another. Frey’s own house is like that: It’s anchored in a rock base, part of the earth, with a very light structure atop that lives on its own, rising out of the ground, the way a living desert cactus would grow out of the rock.”
Today, preservation challenges at the Frey House are as indelibly tied to its unique site as are its architecture and design. As a glass and steel house that sits on rocks, transfer of heat and cold direct from the earth's surface can yield both natural heating and cooling as well as building material impact. The pool has already been re-plastered, and warping of the veneer mahogany used in the built-in cabinetry is a concern—reminders of the vulnerable legacy of preserving an architect’s home design for future generations to visit and learn. Yet, in Palm Springs today, his legacy lives on—bright and clear.
South and east exposure of the Albert Frey House in California’s San Jacinto mountains outside Palm Springs. Image courtesy of Dan Chavkin.
Steel corrugated roof shelters large boulder that pierces the house. Image courtesy of Dan Chavkin.
A bedroom light switch is set into a rock that the house is constructed around, and all the furniture is built in. Image courtesy of Dan Chavkin.
Albert Frey at the Frey House. Image courtesy of Don Buckner.