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Palm Springs Architectural ‘What Ifs’ on Display

This desert city built on dreams is the latest place to re-examine its architectural heritage through the lens of what didn’t get built

By Mike Singer

One of AIA Gold Medalist Richard Neutra’s most famous commissions is the Kaufmann House, the Palm Springs, Calif., glass, steel, and stone vacation home he designed in 1946 for Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann and his wife, Liliane. A decade earlier, Kaufmann had commissioned AIA Gold Medalist Frank Lloyd Wright to build Fallingwater at Bear Run, Pa.

But what if Wright had built in Palm Springs instead?

It almost happened. The less well-known (and never built) Boulder House, Wright’s early 1950s design, was to be located next door to the already-constructed Kaufmann desert house. It was to be for Liliane, who allegedly could no longer live with her philandering husband. (Wright wrote to Liliane, “I'll get you out of that little house in Palm Springs,” referring to Neutra’s desert house.)

Boulder House was one of the highlights of “Never Built Palm Springs,” a panel conversation during Modernism Week about what didn’t get built in this resort city two hours east of Los Angeles.

Liliane died in 1952 after an accidental barbiturate overdose in the bedroom of her Fallingwater home. So Boulder House, featuring pools enclosed in an organic and circular design, exists only in Wright’s drawings and conjectures about what could have been. “If Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision has been carried out and built, you can imagine it could be very influential—not just because he’s going to speak in his language about how you’re supposed to build in the desert, but [because] hundreds of houses built in Palm Springs that use Neutra’s Kaufmann House as a reference could have used [Boulder House] as a reference,” said Greg Goldin, an architectural curator and critic, and one of the presenters at “Never Built Palm Springs.” “You could have had the ripple effect of one house influencing so many others. So it’s never just one unbuilt project, but how it could influence a change in direction. Perhaps if he had built the Boulder House you would have had another camp of architecture in Palm Springs; you may have had a more organic conception of Modernism.”

Never built nation

The “Never Built Palm Springs” panel was inspired by Los Angeles’ A+D Architecture and Design Museum exhibit Never Built Los Angeles, curated by Sam Lubell and Goldin.

In that exhibit, and in their subsequent 376-page book, Never Built Los Angeles, Frank Lloyd Wright is well represented. Hand-drawn renderings for Wright’s Doheny Ranch, a sprawling residential development above Beverly Hills; all-steel homes in Baldwin Hills; the Huntington Hartford Sports Club; and a master plan for a theater, artists’ studios, and other structures on Olive Hill around Wright’s Hollyhock House are all included. Never Built Los Angeles includes sketches, blueprints, and models for housing developments, interconnected parks, light rail systems, subways, elevated monorails, offshore freeways, office plazas, and other ambitious projects that could have redefined modern-day Los Angeles. “Alternative history is particularly true in the public building space, as large-scale public projects have greater impact on what a community could have been,” Goldin said.

The book also shows how visionary ideas never completely die. Consider, for example, Lloyd Wright’s (Frank’s son) monumental plans for a Los Angeles Civic Center, rendered in 1925 with grand boulevards, interconnected shops, offices, and government buildings flanked by terraced walkways. Spurred by the success of Frank Gehry’s, FAIA, Disney Hall, downtown Los Angeles is today creating a new urban hub of grand parks and boulevards, reflecting some of Wright’s unbuilt thinking from 90 years earlier.

Increasingly, “never built” has become an entire genre of architectural museum exhibitions, popularized by blockbusters such as Unbuilt Washington, Unbuilt San Francisco, and even a BBC series entitled Unbuilt Britain. Why is the topic so fascinating? “It presents an alternative history nobody knows about,” said Lubell. “You think a city is static, but things could have been extremely different. It’s not just that we are revealing alternative histories, but it is also getting the city to question if it’s too timid. Are we holding back? People are rethinking cities now, so it’s a normal question: What could have been? We want to push for innovative, smarter thinking. People want to dream about what is possible.”

Palm Springs’ road not taken

In the mid-1960s, an architectural collaborative spent three years rethinking Palm Springs’ downtown core, studying the central business district, and developing a master plan. A 10.5-foot-long model was presented to the Palm Springs City Council in 1967. “The City Council thanked my father and his friends for their work, and then put the model in a warehouse where it gathered dust for the about 30 years,” said Erik Williams, son of famed local architect E. Stewart Williams. “It finally found a resting place in a landfill.”

How different might downtown Palm Springs look today if the 1960s plan had been followed?

“It was too far advanced for the time,” said Sidney Williams, curator of architecture and design at the Palm Springs Art Museum, and Erik Williams’ wife. “The downtown would have looked very different if that plan had been realized. Palm Canyon Drive would have been rerouted, and downtown would have been a pedestrian-only zone. Now the car is an integral part of city planning, so rather than removing the car, we integrate it.”

Today the redevelopment of downtown Palm Springs is accelerating. The city’s aging downtown mall, Desert Fashion Plaza, was just demolished and will be replaced by a new major mixed-use shopping/hotel complex designed by Allen + Philip Architects/Interiors that will include new pedestrian spaces. The Merrill Lynch Building is being repurposed by Pacific 33 Architects as the Eisenhower Medical Center. With design help from Marmol Radziner, the former Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan (originally designed by E. Stewart Williams) will open this fall as the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center, Edwards Harris Pavilion. It all adds up to a lot of adaptive reuse and a new vibrancy, a goal of the original 1960s downtown plan.

Shoot for the moon, settle for the desert

At the panel discussion, Lance O’Donnell, AIA, founder of o2 Architecture, discussed his Trails project, a $250 million, 200,000-square-foot development on a 17-acre site on the south side of downtown Palm Springs. The ambitious project included a hotel, conference center, spa-fitness center, wellness center, offices, and retail space. “The Trails project was approved by the various city zoning, planning, and community groups, but funding didn’t materialize. It was an economic death,” said O’Donnell, who partnered with Donald Wexler, FAIA, on the project. Today, a decrepit Chevrolet dealership, vacant for the past 15 years, remains on the undeveloped site, a visual eyesore and a reminder of the never built project planned here in 2007.

Sixty years earlier, in nearby Desert Hot Springs, Calif., Modernist master John Lautner was commissioned by Hollywood film producer Lucien Hubbard to build the Desert Hot Springs Motel. The original 1947 vision was for a master planned community of over 100 buildings, storefronts, and pools on 600 acres. Only four rooms and two pools were ever built, and after Hubbard’s death the acreage was subdivided and sold off for other uses.

Today, after sitting vacant for 20 years, the Desert Hot Springs Motel, renamed Hotel Lautner, has been renovated into a boutique four-room hotel with no plans (and now no land) to realize Lautner’s full original master plan vision.

“As we discovered from our show in Los Angeles, the visionary architects are the ones who had the most never built,” Goldin said. “Civic leaders often don’t get behind big projects. And the more ambitious and visionary they are, the harder to line all those people up.”

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s house for the Kaufmanns in Palm Springs. Image courtesy of Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin.

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Donald Wexler’s, FAIA, never built Palm Springs Convention Center, 1965, which was conceived as part of a downtown redevelopment plan. Image courtesy of Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin.

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Never realized downtown Palm Springs master plan model, developed by E. Stewart Williams, FAIA, and his Palm Springs Planning Collaborative, 1967. Image courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum.

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Never built luxury hotel proposed for the 17-acre Trails project in Palm Springs, designed by o2 Architecture. Image courtesy of o2 Architecture.

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Recent Related:

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Fire Island Modernism and the Architecture of Horace Gifford

At Home with Modernism

Renovation of John Lautner’s Desert Hot Springs Motel Sets the Stage for Revival of the California Modernist’s Early Work

Stagecraft and Skylight: The Desert Hot Springs Motel


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