The martini is a precarious drink, simple in concept but hard to perfect. The vodka needs to be top-shelf, the vermouth in exact proportion, the olive or onion just so, neither too much ice nor too little, and, of course, shaken not stirred. The glass, irrationally top-heavy, needs to be lifted with great care, lest it spill onto the burnished wood bar. But when it’s done right, martini lovers say, there’s nothing better.
So it was with architecture between the 1940s and 1960s, when it collided with martini culture in Palm Springs, California, the desert oasis some 160km east of Los Angeles. Famous martini drinkers like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Lucille Ball had homes here in the style that’s come to be called Mid-Century Modern, a style that’s now undergoing a renaissance.
Architects including Albert Frey, John Porter Clark, Richard Neutra, Donald Wexler and E. Stewart Williams made Palm Springs their home, and their crucible. Inspired by the work of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, they innovated the use of space-age elements that are now commonplace: flying roofs, long overhangs, impossibly thin supports and floor-to-ceiling windows.
Another tenet of Modernism was to blur barriers between interior and exterior spaces. This desert town has sunshine virtually daily, frequent winds and summer temperatures around 40°C, so in the days before air conditioning, the architects made air flow in through clerestory windows and out through sliding glass doors. And access to the swimming pool was key; Palm Springs is nothing if not a party town. It was all perfect for the poolside lounging, social atmosphere and warm weather that the Rat Packers craved.
Twin Palms, the home E. Stewart Williams designed for Frank Sinatra, is an elaborate example, with floor-to-ceiling windows and covered walkways supported by very thin posts that cast shadows like keys on the piano-shaped swimming pool.
Architect Albert Frey built his own home on a hillside above the city, not so much rooms as a few multiple-use areas. The central space contains an oblong table that doubled as a desk and a dining table, and a craggy boulder in its original slate forms a headboard for Frey’s bed, over-looking the valley below. The color scheme— yellow, pale green, pale blue and blond wood— mimics the flowers, trees and sky of the area, The house is now owned by the Palm Springs Desert Museum.
Palm Springs’ City Hall was a collaborative effort of Williams, Frey, John Porter Clark and Robson Chambers. Lattices of aluminum cylinders, called brises-soleil, line the front of the building, blocking the sun and letting breezes in, while enabling people inside to see out. An overhang above the main entrance features a circular cutout filled with palm trees. This circle is echoed with a disk above the entrance to the city council chamber. Even typography was considered an architectural element—a slogan above the council chamber reads “The people are the city” and its look changes as the sun shifts throughout the day.
In its heyday, Modernism was so popular in Palm Springs that every picture in real estate ads in the local telephone directory was of a Modernist home. Yet, some say, Modernism became a victim of its success, so common that it came to be taken for granted. Many architect-designed homes fell into disrepair, owners made modifications that clashed with the original designs, and some buildings were simply torn down. Among the buildings that survived many were so filled with clutter, incompatible art or mismatched furniture that they went from showplace to noplace. Like bad martinis, the elements were there but not handled right.
As a result, for much of the rest of the 20th century, Modernism was underappreciated. “It isn’t warm and fuzzy,” says Robert Imber of Palm Springs Modern Tours, who leads energetic, informative two-hour architectural tours. Modernism became, as he puts it, a “love it, hate it” thing.
These days, the consensus is “love it.”