Palm Springs is the soothing, sun-drenched Yin to Vegas’ hedonistic Yang. I learnt that while it has only relatively recently become a global tourist destination; the city’s restorative powers can be traced back by over a century. It was in the early 1900s that this city, nestled in the shade of glorious Mount San Jacinto, first garnered popularity as a health resort. It still draws illustrious visitors with its dry heat, micro-climate and hot springs, or Agua Caliente – also the namesake of a local Cahuilla Indian tribe (Indian, not Native American, is the preferred term) that pretty much own the place. If you think of Palm Springs as a chessboard, every other square, including the castles, knights and rooks are owned by the tribe and leased to residents. Considering every other square is also occupied by a sexy piece of modernist architecture, you can see why this tribe is among the richest in the country.
For people like me (I possess a sense of direction akin to a broken shopping trolley) Palm Springs is perfect. It’s basically two main streets, long and straight. This idiot-proof geometric town planning is truly one of the two things Americans get absolutely right (the other being breakfast.) As I wander through the uptown design district I realise I know exactly where I am in relation to my hotel, I know where the nearest place with a happy hour is, and I can walk two minutes and get the greatest burrito I’ve ever had. I almost feel like a local after three days here. All of this in a fresh-aired, almost unreal, landscape and setting – I feel happy and deeply content, a world away from my hangover. And knowing Marilyn, Elvis and Frank are looking down on me, I genuinely feel at home.
Whilst understated, Palm Springs is dripping in money and sass. During the early days of Hollywood (1920s-60s), studios essentially owned their stars. Their rules dictated that, while under contract, actors could never be more than two hours from Tinsel town. Palm Springs is almost exactly two hours from Hollywood and thus began the town’s longstanding association with the entertainment industry, and as a playground for the rich and famous. It was literally the furthest away they could get. Because of this notoriety, more and more cash has trickled into Palm Springs over the decades, gentrifying the region from top to bottom. And with new money, came new buildings and new architecture – or to be more precise, a new wave of architecture known as ‘Desert Modern’.
This architectural movement has created a recognisable silhouette in this city in the desert. I’m told that this is the biggest thing to have happened to West Coast American architecture – and tens of thousands of architectural fans flock to city for it. It’s no coincidence that my trip coincides with Modernism Week, one of the biggest events in the city’s calendar.
My introduction to Modernism (and it’s very much an introduction, at this point in the trip I wouldn’t know a ‘Beau Soleil’ if one fell on me) begins with ‘Best of the Best Tours’. I’m the youngest person in the group, and there are many fine examples of the standard Palm Springs old man uniform – khaki shorts hiked up above the navel, long socks and baseball caps. For a moment it seems to confirm the outdated stereotype of Palm Springs as a sort of gayer Florida (if that’s even possible). But, in fact, this steryotype is no longer true. With a slew of ultra- trendy hotels – including The Viceroy, The Saguaro and The Ace – the demographic is much more diverse, young, bearded and tattooed than you could possibly imagine.
The tourists yell pleasantries at each other and we meet the owner of ‘Best Of The Best’ – Bob. Bob is a character. He produces a guitar and sings us a song that nearly won a state competition back when Sonny Bono was mayor, a folksy paean to Palm Springs, focusing chiefly on how nice the weather is. And nice it is, in fact it’s so perfect you almost weep. Bob’s tour focuses on the Las Palmas area, which consists of rows of immaculately preserved homes, where seemingly every star of Old Hollywood once lived. There’s the Sinatra house, where the sink is still chipped from Ava Gardner throwing a bottle of champagne at Old Blue Eyes; the one where Elvis lived, a retro- futuristic mansion that looks set to take off for Jupiter at any minute. There’s also Elliot Gould’s house from Ocean’s Eleven – all maintained by armies of gardeners. We see scores of them from the bus, bent over their work or marching along in straw hats with leaf blowers. They smile and wave as we pass, just like everyone else here smiles and waves when you pass.
Each house is different, but the Modernist style is iconic and instantly recognisable. Indoor and outdoor spaces, horizontal lines upon horizontal lines, glass and metal, futuristic but timeless, sleek and elegant, standing in dramatic contrast to the surrounding plains of the Coachella Valley and the hulking San Jacinto mountain range. This is living in full HD.
As we continue our tour, the famous names come thick and fast. Hedi Lamar, Liberace, Marilyn, Chaplin – each piece of architecture evoking all the glamour of a bygone age, like stepping back to a time when things were somehow more elegant, or just more perfect.
The same goes for the rest of Palm Springs – the whole town is a refreshing counterpoint to a country that invented the strip- mall and mass-market homogeny. You’ll find it hard to locate a Chipotle or Burger King here, just a plethora of family run and independent businesses, kitschy diners and boutiques. This is fully reflected in the City’s architectural board – all staunch preservationists, well aware they’re sitting on something precious, unique and beautiful.
Like I said, I’m a novice with this stuff. Of course I can appreciate a beautiful building, but in the normal course of things, architecture falls below my conscious radar. But, after a few days here, I won’t be able to switch it off. That’s the beautiful way awareness works. Until I bring it to your attention, you’re unaware that your shoes are full of feet. And until I came here I was unaware that architecture could dictate the entire mood of a place – through what it exudes, and what it tells you to feel. In my mind’s eye, I go back to the financial district of my home in London – those skyscrapers, glass and metal, robust but transparent. ‘We’re strong but trustworthy,’ they say. So what does Palm Springs say to me? That life is to be enjoyed; and that it is ultimately important to take your time and appreciate beautiful things; and that nature is something to work in harmony with, not to conquer.
Maybe California is rubbing off on me. Or perhaps that’s just the power of architecture.
Zack stayed at the sublime Viceroy Palm Springs. Click on the link to read his review.