Regarded as the apogee of his practice, Albert Frey’s vision to transform the arid landscape of the Coachella Valley is still seen today as an architectural masterstroke.
In post-World War II USA, Palm Springs had gained a burgeoning reputation as the playground for Hollywood’s elite and a winter escape for those living on the east coast. And with this new-found persona came the want and need for new styles from international influencers to take the city from the ordinary to the unique.
Step in Albert Frey: an architect with European roots and a prerogative to reinvent the blueprint of Palm Spring’s cityscape through a new wave of design – desert modernism.
All paths lead to California
Born at the turn of the 20th century in Zurich, Switzerland, Albert Frey began his architectural ascent by gaining a diploma in architecture from the Institute of Technology in Winterthur in 1924. During his studies, Frey focused more on traditional, building-orientated aspects of architecture, rather than conforming to the Beaux-Arts movement of the time.
After working on projects across Switzerland and Belgium, he came to the forefront of modern architecture when he took on a position at Le Corbusier’s famed Paris office. This gave Frey the opportunity to work on Villa Savoye – a building formulated on the fundamental principles of modernist architecture.
Frey’s next move saw him partner with A. Lawrence Kocher in New York, and although they only created four buildings together, the pair are regarded as leaders of the American modernist movement. Frey’s most iconic work in NYC was the Aluminaire House – the first metal pre-fabricated house to be built in the US. It was the embodiment of the USA’s move away from traditional design to a modernist approach. His first contact with Palm Springs came in 1934, when it was said he fell in love with the area, and permanently resided there from 1939 onwards.
Frey, desert modernism and Palm Springs
Although the idea of modernism had already been brought to Palm Springs’ architectural backdrop by Richard Neutra during the early 1930s, the decades that followed were inspired by Frey’s influences such as the German Bauhaus and Dutch De Stijl movements, and, of course, Le Corbusier. The desert landscapes appealed to Frey, giving him a canvas for working on like no other.
His designs were based on integrating buildings into the landscape, taking inspiration from colours and textures to effortlessly blend his architecture into the rocky topography. Yet these buildings were practical and leisurely; they were designed to look good and be liveable. Even today, it’s hard to comprehend that one of desert modernism’s founding fathers is actually from the snowy mountains of Switzerland. It’s a juxtaposed relationship in architecture and practice.
Working alongside Kocher, Frey’s first commissioned works in Palm Springs was the Kocher-Samson Building in 1934 – a multi-purpose office and apartment building, which was to be used by his partner’s brother, Dr. J. J. Kocher. This project is still heralded as the city’s most important building, as it opened to doors for Frey to bring his minimalistic, simplistic design style. It was the starting point for desert modernism in Palm Springs. The first ‘internationally-styled’ building used a low linear blueprint, drawing on the core values of modernism, from mixing materials to creating a stand-out, light-filled space.
This was just the beginning of Frey’s use of desert modernism within Palm Springs, as his ideas began to influence all aspects of the city’s architecture. Completed in 1952, Palm Springs City is an outstanding piece of Frey’s work. The building was created in a low-lying structure and coloured in a light taupe hue, so it wouldn’t disrupt the arid landscape, but become a part of it. Sun-soaked walkways and grassy gardens evoked the wider setting, whilst the eye-catching entrance to this day still has three giant palm trees protruding through the front of the building. The emblazoned typography of “Palm Springs City Hall” oozes modernist influences too. The flat roof and straight lines throughout the building are the peak principles of Frey’s work across the city.
Elsewhere, the iconic Tramway Gas Station is visually stunning and marks the entrance to this desert modernist mecca. Designed alongside architectural partner Robson Chambers, the service station’s walls were built using natural stone to match the mountainous terrain, whilst its low-lying form (much like the city hall) was used to reduce the risk of the building being intrusive on the landscape. Yet the Tramway’s pièce de résistance is the huge wing-shaped (or flying wedge) roof, resting atop slim poles to create a giant veranda, offering shade from the desert sun.
The Aerial Tramway Valley Station and North Shore Beach and Yacht Club follow suit too – a low-lying structure, expansive windows and an impetus placed on integrating into the background whilst being ergonomically sound. This style is desert modernism at its finest; it’s the architectural genius of Albert Frey at its finest.
The seminal Albert Frey House II
Alongside buildings for the city’s use, Frey also spent time devising residential dwellings for himself and others across Palm Springs. Frey House I and Cree House II are renowned examples of Frey’s impact on how homes should be built within the city, but it’s another of his properties which has left an ever-lasting legacy.
The innovative Albert Frey House II epitomises both desert modernism and Frey’s ingenuity. A personal home for the architect created in 1964, this 74m² building uses a long, low and linear form to create a glass and steel structure partnered with the natural rock to almost blend into the San Jacinto Mountain terrain. The plans were seen as being farfetched – building regulators at Palm Springs City Hall called them “crazy” on reviewing them yet granted Frey permission to create the masterpiece.
The ginormous windows allow light to flood into the home during the daytime and showcase the best of Palm Springs’ skyline at night – a design point meticulously planned by Frey, especially as it was the city’s highest residency at the time. The interior colours too are inspired by the exterior, with the ceilings painted sky blue and a yellow seen on the Encelia flower used for the curtains. But it doesn’t move away from the ethos of Palm Springs, still featuring the ever-popular sundeck and swimming pool.
Frey himself said of the home: “The contrast between the natural rock and the high-tech materials is rather exciting”. He took the uninhabitable terrain and made it a habitable home through his core values towards desert modernism. Frey House II is also regarded as the first home to be designed to have minimal impact on the environment, another nod to Frey’s pioneering outlook to architecture.
A city still thriving on desert modernism
Seven decades on, the ideologies and architectural principles of Albert Frey and desert modernism still live strong in Palm Springs. So much so, the city plays home to the Modernism Week festival to celebrate and foster appreciation of mid-century architecture and design.
It may have been claimed that “Palm Springs made desert modernism, not the other way around”, but without the architectural ingenuity of Albert Frey, it may have been a city which lacks the iconic aesthetic identity it has today.