Desert modern
Palm Springs, California, USA


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.

As 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.

Architecture buffs and sidewalk-standing admirers alike should check out the city’s Modernism Week, and for more about Palm Springs, visit the city’s Tourism Portal.

Zack stayed at the sublime Viceroy Palm Springs.