Category: Travel

Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Cambridge MA

During a recent trip to Boston, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the only building that Le Corbusier designed in the US.

Never mind that the building in question was the decidedly ugly Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Forming part of Harvard University’s campus, the reinforced concrete building was completed in 1962 and was designed to inspire art and creativity at Harvard.

Sandwiched between more traditional red brick Harvard campus buildings, the site that Le Corbusier had to build on was relatively small resulting in a compact, roughly cylindrical structure bisected by an S-shaped concrete ramp going up to the core of the building on the third floor containing various glass-walled studios and exhibition spaces. The ramp was supported by a few pilotis and cantilevered from a central spine containing a lift.

I generally love and celebrate all concrete buildings but the prominent ramp and rainwater stained concrete facade gave the Carpenter Center more than just a slight resemblance to a multi-storey carpark.

Unfortunately, Le Corbusier never actually saw the completed building and declined his invitation to the opening ceremony due to his ill health.

Banham Studio, Prickwillow

When we went to stay in that Ellis Miller house in Prickwillow, we noticed a second, slightly fancier one next door. Interestingly, this has come up for sale via The Modern House.

Although identical in construction to the one get we stayed in, this one appears to have undergone a more extensive renovation/extension, resulting in additional living space in the form of a studio (which could easily be used as a second bedroom) and utility area. The finish appears to be a lot better than the one we stayed in, which was looking a bit tired after years being used as a holiday rental.

At £450,000, the price is slightly lower than I expected though this is probably due to the location: Prickwillow is, after all, quite remote with no amenities nearby. I do have fond memories of staying in its neighbour, however, so I’m sure this will make someone a lovely full-time or holiday home.

La Cité Radieuse, Marseille

In 1920, the renowned Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier started to develop the concept behind what was to become his Unités d’Habitation buildings. These vast concrete apartment buildings went on to be enormously influential and are often cited as the initial inspiration for the Brutalist architectural style and philosophy.

The first and most famous of Le Corbuiser’s Unités d’Habitation buildings was La Cité Radieuse in Marseille, which was built from 1947 to 1952. Constructed in rough-cast concrete with its instantly recognisable primary-coloured panels, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016 and a historic monument by the French Ministry of Culture.

Set over 12 storeys, La Cité Radieuse was built to house 337 apartments, two indoor streets of commercial units on the third and fourth floors (currently occupied by a hotel, restaurant and a number of high-end stores), a nursery school and an art gallery, all topped by a expansive communal terrace featuring sculptural ventilation stacks, a running track, a shallow paddling pool for children, an open-air stage, a children’s art school in the atelier and unobstructed views of the Mediterranean and Marseille.

The building’s design incorporated 23 different apartment types, the most common being a two bedroom split-level duplex. It was a (very) faithfully preserved version of one of these duplex apartments that we stayed in during a recent visit to Marseille.

The apartment was arranged over two levels, opening from the seventh floor corridor onto a mezzanine level containing the original Cuisine Atelier Le Corbusier type 1 kitchen and a dining area overlooking the living area below. A Jean Prouvé-designed open tread steel staircase led down to the lower floor of the apartment which stretched all the way from one side of the building to the other with a balcony on each side (the building was designed with a interlocking scissor layout – the apartment across the corridor had a staircase leading to an equivalent upper floor spanning the entire width of the building).

The lower floor living space contained a living area, a bathroom with separate toilet and shower cubicle built into a cupboard-like pod and two long, narrow bedrooms at the opposite end, each with their own sink and dressing area and divided by a sliding door. All of the rooms were furnished with original free-standing and built-in furniture, including “storage walls” with various cupboards with sliding doors designed by Charlotte Perriand in collaboration with Atelier Le Corbusier.

So, what was the experience of living in a perfectly preserved (i.e. almost completely unmodernised) Le Corbusier apartment like? It was definitely an experience. Certain aspects of the original design still worked well – the double height ceiling and window over the living area was dramatic and allowed plenty of light to flood into both the upper and lower floors of the apartment, enhanced by the dual aspect on the lower floor. The extensive built-in storage was functional and attractive.

Other things worked less well: the way that the lower floor stretched all the way from one side of the building to the other combined with the relatively narrow width of the apartment made it feel a little corridor-like, especially the bedrooms which were particularly long and thin.

The original kitchen, while beautifully preserved, was lacking from a practical perspective by modern standards (the oven was particularly difficult to use without scorching yourself) and the less said about the claustrophobic shower in the windowless cupboard (painted black, no less), the better. Lastly, those gorgeous-looking Charlotte Perriand sofas in the living room made for the least comfortable seating I have ever sat on.

The communal areas of the building and roof terrace (even though the shallow pool had been drained for the winter when we visited in March) were, however, spectacular.

I understand that you can join a tour of the building which includes access to at least one of the apartments. If were to redo our visit to Marseille, I would probably join that tour rather than rent an apartment for the full authentic experience of staying in a Le Corbusier building.

La Cité Radieuse, original publicity

Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge

Originally the Cambridge home of curator, art collector and sometime artist Jim Ede and his wife Helen, Kettle’s Yard House serves as the University of Cambridge’s art gallery, housing the couple’s spectacular collection of early 20th-century art.

Having moved to Cambridge in 1956, the couple converted four slim cottages (reportedly slum dwellings scheduled for demolition) into one rather idiosyncratic house.

Thanks to Jim’s job as a curator at the Tate Gallery, the couple were able to fill their home with artworks by famous names like Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Joan Mirò (mostly acquired before these artists reached the pinnacle of their success), which they carefully and lovingly arranged around the house. Jim was meticulous about this, believing that the positioning of an artwork relative to its surroundings was almost as important as the artwork itself and that each room of the house should be regarded as a collective work of art in its own right.

It was also part of Jim’s philosophy that art should be shared in a relaxed, informal environment and so he would hold ‘open house’ tours, inviting students from the University of Cambridge over for afternoon tea to enjoy the art and even to borrow paintings from his collection to hang in their rooms during term-time.

Concerned that his beloved house would be broken up upon his death, Jim gave the house and collection to the University of Cambridge in 1966 on the condition that they would fund various improvements, including the construction of a large new wing in the late 1960s to host live music events and to preserve the space as the couple left it upon their departure in 1973.

Jim’s art arranging skills and all-round good taste were still very much in evidence when I joined a recent tour of the house, which began in the original older wing of the house.

This part of the house consisted of the three original cottages knocked into one and contained the couples’ bedrooms and a reception room on both the upper and lower levels. Whilst the couple had upgraded the original slum cottages, installing more luxurious fixtures and fittings to replace the original features (the mid century-style spiral staircase and large windows would not have been found in the original slum dwellings, for example), these rooms were low ceilinged and modest in size. This made for an unusually homely and intimate setting for displaying significant pieces of early 20th century paintings and sculpture.

The original wing of the house was connected to the newer wing by a bridge link/small conservatory on the upper floor. Crossing the bridge, you went from the slightly claustrophobic spaces of the original cottages to jaw dropping, full-on, double height 1960s modernism. This provided more of a gallery-like setting for the rest of the collection and the downstairs area was also large enough to be used for live music events as requested by Jim when he gave the house to the University of Cambridge.

Ellis Miller House, Prickwillow

Designed by the architect Jonathan Ellis-Miller for his own occupation, this single-storey modernist house was actually built in the late 1980s despite resembling the American work of architects like Mies Van Der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames and Craig Ellwood from the 1940s and 50s.

The house was constructed using mostly steel and glass with a galvanised steel structural roof, the front elevation composed entirely of sliding doors opening out onto the Cambridgeshire Fens and offering views across agricultural land.

The house was bought by its current owner as a holiday home in 2010 (reportedly in a bit of a state) and restored to its former glory. Keen for others to enjoy this slice of Californian Modernism in the Cambridgeshire Fens (the owner’s words rather than mine), the owner currently rents out the house for holiday lets which is how we ended up there for a couple of days this October.

Arriving at the house, I was struck by the simplicity of the layout. Entered from the carport beside the house, the house had no hallway or corridor and consisted of a long, open-plan living space divided by a striking chimney breast and open fire place, which spanned the length of the house and a kitchen, wet room and bathroom and ensuite accessed off the living area. Relatively compact in size at 66 square metres, the combination of the layout and glass panels made it feel a lot larger.

Staying in the house was comfortable – the original electric underfloor heating was still in operation, allowing for a pleasantly natural heat to emanate through the wood block flooring and the kitchen and bathrooms had been renovated recently enough for them not to feel like relics of another time (which can be the case when staying in period houses like this one). The views across the expanse of the flat East Anglian fens out of the sliding glass wall, which stretched from one end of the house to the other, were also pretty spectacular.

On the downside, the flat corrugated steel roof meant that there was an unholy racket whenever it rained. The minimal decor, whilst mostly in keeping with the house, was a little pedestrian (a proper sideboard and some decent period artwork would have complemented the Days Forum leather sofas – surely still the best thing Habitat has ever produced – and elevated the living area, for instance). Overall, I found that the finish was a little tired in places (busted blinds, slightly grimy exterior, chipped tiles), probably due to the house being used repeatedly as a holiday rental.

In terms of location, Prickwillow was pretty remote with zero amenities nearby (the rather sleepy Ely was a 10 minute taxi ride away) though for architecture enthusiasts, the house made for a worthy destination in of itself.

Modernist pilgrimage to Stuttgart

Although the end of our trip to Stuttgart was somewhat tainted by Storm Ciara/Sabine (we ended up holed up in a dodgy hotel next to Stuttgart airport for 48 hours waiting for a flight home), we did manage to see some excellent modernism-related sights during our time there.

Weissenhof

In 1927, an impressive line-up of 17 architects synonymous with the Modernist Movement including the likes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Walter Gropius built an experimental residential settlement called Weissenhof, which translates as “the Dwelling”, on a hill on the outskirts of Stuttgart.

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Weissenhof – two-family house designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret

The settlement, consisting of 63 apartments and 21 houses, was designed as a socialist alternative to slum housing usually endured by the poor and was intended by the architects to house modern city dwellers ranging from blue-collar workers who would presumably live in the studios and smaller apartments to members of the upper middle class who would live in the larger houses.

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Weissenhof  – main thoroughfare

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Weissenhof – various buildings

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Weissenhof – building designed by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe

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Weissenhof – Hans Scharaun, Breslau

The homes were designed to be bright spaces surrounded by verdant landscaping to promote healthy living. A key example of one of these homes was the two-family house designed by Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret on the edge of the complex, which was recently added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List and opened to the public as a museum.

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Weissenhof – Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret house, front elevation

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Weissenhof – Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret house

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Weissenhof – Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret house, roof terrace

The house, essentially a fancy semi, had many features closely associated with Le Corbusier including a horizontal strip window that ran across the length of the front facade, painted steel columns on the ground level which held up first and second floors, a terrace on the flat roof partially sheltered by a concrete canopy and a monochromatic colour scheme with splashes of bold colour.

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Weissenhof – Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret house, museum space on left side of building

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Weissenhof – Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret house, museum space on left side of building

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Weissenhof – Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret house, roof terrace

Visitors entered the building via the house on the left hand side of the semi. This house had been converted into a whitewashed museum with a modified floorplan to accommodate an exhibition setting out the genesis and history of the Weissenhof. Having climbed the modernist staircase through three floors of this rather bland museum space, you were directed down into the second, more interesting house by way of the roof terrace that connected the two houses.

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Weissenhof – Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret house, living space on right side of building

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Weissenhof – Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret house, living areas on right side of building

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Weissenhof – Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret house, bathroom on right side of building

The second house was laid out, furnished and decorated as it would have been in 1927. The not very substantial living area was located on the middle floor and consisted of a kitchen, bathroom and living/sleeping area with staff quarters occupying the whole of the ground floor. Apparently designed with women in mind, the spaces were narrow and simply furnished.

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Weissenhof – Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret house, sleeping area on right side of building

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Weissenhof – Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret house

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Weissenhof – Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret house, living area on right side of building

Neue Staatsgalerie

The Neue Staatsgalerie was designed by the British firm James Stirling and was constructed between 1979 and 1984. The controversial building, consisting of a series of connected galleries around three sides of a central rotunda, has been described as the epitome of Post-modernism.

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Neue Staatsgalerie, exterior at night

The building was a slightly disorienting and trippy mixture of classicism (travertine and sandstone in classical forms) with modernist elements (industrial pieces of slime green steel and bright pink and blue steel handrails) and housed a collection of 20th century modern art including Picassos, Modiglianis and Schlemmers.

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Neue Staatsgalerie, interior lobby

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Neue Staatsgalerie, interior views

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Neue Staatsgalerie, dancers of Oskar Schlemmer

Vitra by StoreS

I know it’s hugely overpriced and everything that they sell is a well-worn design cliche but I can’t help but love Vitra.

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Vitra by StoreS, inside

At 570sq metres and spread over two levels, the colourfully fronted Vitra store that we visited on Charlottenplatz was the world’s largest retail space dedicated to Vitra. As well as stocking all of Vitra’s design cliche products (displayed as attractively as ever), the store also looked at the company’s history in the form of a small museum of sorts.

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Vitra by StoreS, inside

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Vitra by StoreS, exterior and interior views

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Vitra by StoreS, Vitra map

Wurttembergische Landesbibliothek

The State Library of Württemberg was designed by Horst Linde and opened in 1970. An academic library, it contained the humanities sections of the University of Stuttgart.

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 State Library of Württemberg, interior from first floor

I couldn’t find any information online about the building which suggests that it isn’t held in particularly high regard but I thought the exterior and interior spaces were visually quite striking in terms of design and scale. It also looked like it hadn’t been renovated since 1970, which greatly appealed to me.

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 State Library of Württemberg, exterior views

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 State Library of Württemberg, interior from main entrance

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 State Library of Württemberg, interior views

Flea market Karlsplatz

As far as European fleamarkets go, this was a good one. Open every Saturday since 1983, Flohmarkt Karlsplatz filled the whole of a large square, consisting of well over 100 stalls selling everything you might expect from a typical flea market including mid-century furniture, antique frames, crystalware ornaments, silverware, crockery, antique kitchen appliances, antique cameras, WW2 militaria, coins and toys.

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Flea market Karlsplatz – mid century ceramics stall

My favourite kind of stall has always been the type that looks like the vendor has cleared out their own home and dumped it on a table (and there were plenty of stalls like this here) but there were also some slightly more professional dealer-types with higher quality tat mixed in which gave the flea market a slightly higher end feel.

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Flea market Karlsplatz

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Flea market Karlsplatz – various stalls

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Flea market Karlsplatz – Eames chairs

 

Taliesin West, Phoenix

Taliesin West was the last item on our itinerary before heading home and as alluded to in my previous blog entry, warranted its own dedicated blog entry.

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Taliesin West, main building exterior

Located 30 miles north of Phoenix, Taliesin West was the architectural school of renowned 20th century architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Built in 1937, Frank Lloyd Wright lived in its residential quarters until his death in 1959.

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Taliesin West, odd sculptures and structures at main entrance

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Taliesin West, more outdoor sculptures 

Built on the brow of a hill rather than on the hill itself in order to avoid spoiling the hill’s profile (Taliesin means “shining brow”), Taliesin West was a prime example of what our guide referred to as “organic architecture” (namely, architecture that uses the natural environment, time period and people as the basis for its design) and had a timeless, if utterly bizarre, aesthetic.

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Taliesin West, fountain in courtyard

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Taliesin West, exterior

Frank Lloyd Wright famously loathed traditional, box-shaped buildings, deeming them “fascist”. He also hated the traditional notion of being greeted by a “grand foyer” when entering a house and having everything branch off this foyer in predictable fashion. Instead, he felt that architecture should be “discovered”, revealed to you as you moved through it rather than all at once; akin to the experience of reading a novel. As such, Taliesin West was the antithesis of a box, consisting of multiple organic-shaped structures containing open-plan areas and concealed, non-obvious entrances. Though this meant that it was interesting to look at, it also made it really quite difficult to photograph (as the photos in this blog entry demonstrate).

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Taliesin West, entrance to main building

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Taliesin West, exterior canopy

The decor was a mix of Asian (Frank Lloyd Wright loved Japan and thought it was the most romantic place in the world), Native American (a colour that featured throughout was Cherokee red, Frank Lloyd Wright’s favourite colour), The Flinstones (most of the exterior walls consisted of local desert rocks, stacked within wood forms and filled with concrete – also referred to as “desert masonry”) and space age futurism.

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Taliesin West, asian-inspired doors to theatre

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Taliesin West, exterior and gardens

Frank Lloyd Wright designed everything in the complex down to each individual item of furniture and the rooms were full of design features that reflected his personal likes and dislikes. The living room, for instance, was furnished with very low-level parallelogram-shaped seating. This is because Frank Lloyd Wright was 5’6 and considered people over 5’7 to be a waste of space and in his view, standing people (especially tall ones) defaced his architecture.

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Taliesin West, low-level living room seating

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Taliesin West, living room

There was also an absence of art on the walls, something Frank Lloyd Wright generally insisted upon throughout his buildings. This rule apparently extended to homes that he designed for other people – on one of his regular, unannounced inspections of a house he had designed, he saw that a client had hung a huge Picasso on the wall and demanded that it be removed immediately.

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Taliesin West, main office (now used as a reception room for visitors)

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Taliesin West, dining hall

Some of Frank Lloyd Wright‘s design choices proved impractical. For instance, he hated traditional guttering systems as he felt that they disfigured the exterior of a building but the internal concealed guttering system that he had designed for Taliesin West meant that the house was decidedly leaky judging by the amount of buckets collecting rainwater dotted about the place.

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Taliesin West, sleeping area courtyard 

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Taliesin West, master bedroom sliding doors

In addition, he originally designed many of the rooms to be completely open to the elements (he thought that glass would spoil the overall aesthetic) but conceded that this was unworkable in the desert heat during the summer months and installed glass panels throughout the house in 1947. However, he refused to move anything around to accommodate these glass panels, stubborn man that he was, choosing instead to build the glass panels around small items such as earthenware pots.

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Taliesin West, tiny desk in Frank Lloyd Wright’s private office 

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Taliesin West, bathroom, alternative shots of private study and bedroom

Other notable rooms included the surprisingly small bedrooms arranged around and opening via sliding doors onto a courtyard, Frank Lloyd Wright’s private office with its tiny desk, a strange almost windowless bunker-type room used for private dining and for screening unedited Hollywood motion pictures often lasting up to 10-12 hours and finally, a theatre entirely upholstered in Cherokee red where he forced his architecture students to perform musical recitals every year.

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Taliesin West, dining/screening room

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Taliesin West, stage in theatre

 

Modernist Pilgrimage to Phoenix

Phoenix, Arizona was a bit of a step down in the glamour stakes after Palm Springs (it only factored into our plans because it was en route back to London) and we’d made the foolish mistake of coinciding our visit with Thanksgiving Day in the US (which explains why most of the photos in this blog entry look like something out a post-apocalyptic film) but it turned out that there was a lot to like about the place from a mid century/modernist perspective.

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 Fifth Avenue Medical Building, 1967

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Dental Arts building, 1969

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Phoenix Financial Centre, 1964-72

Armed with our map from modernphoenix.net (a spectacular, if slightly overwhelming resource setting out every modernist building of interest in the city), we wandered around taking in various commercial buildings.

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Pyramid, 1979

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Hanny’s, 1947

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US Federal Building and Courthouse, 1961

This included Hanny’s (formerly a department store, now a restaurant) from 1947 with its international-style facade, the US Federal Building and Courthouse from 1961, Central Towers (often referred to as the “U-Haul Towers” since U-Haul’s headquarters are located there) from 1959-62, Pyramid on Central (basically a concrete inverted pyramid) from 1979, the Lescher & Mahoney office (a two-storey courtyard office building occupied by an architectural firm) from 1963, the Phoenix Financial Centre together with the “North Rotunda” and the “South Rotunda” (today used as government offices) from 1964-72, Durant’s (a longstanding steak restaurant) from 1950, the Fifth Avenue Medical Building from 1967 and the Dental Arts building (essentially a box on silts, a popular design solution in Phoenix for providing shaded parking while maximising the leasable area of an office building) from 1969.

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Durant’s, 1950

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Lescher & Mahoney office, 1963

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Unidentified building, 1950-60s

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Central Towers, 1959-62

We came across some futuristic-looking mid-century motels featuring dramatic angles, bold colours and oversized neon signs, the best example of this being the City Centre Motel (now a Travelodge) from 1959. Most of these had been left to ruin and had a distinctly seedy feel upon closer inspection.

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City Centre Motel, 1959

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City Centre Motel, 1959

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Imperial 400 Motel (now Friendship Inn Motel), 1960 

In contrast, we also came across a concentration of nice garden apartment buildings from the late 1950s/1960s on Fifth and Sixth Avenues. These garden apartment buildings were characterised by a low-rise profile, the incorporation of a central open space, generous patios and balconies (designed to provide shade for the unit below) and a general blurring of the line between indoor and outdoor spaces. These garden apartment buildings mostly had glamorous park-like names such as Park North, Royal Riviera, Park Fifth Avenue and The Shorewood.

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Royal Riviera, 1950s-60s

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The Pierre Apartments, 1961

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Park Fifth Avenue, 1960s

In terms of shopping, we discovered a cluster of around ten decent but not especially bargain-filled mid century/vintage stores along N Seventh Avenue.

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Modern on Melrose, 700 W Campbell Avenue

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Modern Manor, N 7th Avenue

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Modern Manor, N 7th Avenue

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Mod Curated Modern Design and Mid Century Modern Furniture Gallery, N 7th Avenue

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Mod Curated Modern Design, N 7th Avenue

Perhaps most significantly of all, Phoenix was home to several Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, two of which we visited – First Christian Church and Taliesin West.

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First Christian Church, 1973-78

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First Christian Church, 1973-78

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First Christian Church, 1973-78

First Christian Church was first designed around 1950 for a local client which went bankrupt. The design was revived by First Christian in 1970, long after Frank Lloyd Wright’s death and was completed in 1973. Meant to “evoke the Holy Trinity and reflect an attitude of prayer”, the chapel’s roof and triangular spire were 77 ft high, supported by 23 slender triangular pillars. The church was accompanied by a separate and free-standing 120 ft bell tower built in 1978 and topped with a 22 ft cross.

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Taliesin West, 1937

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Taliesin West, 1937

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Taliesin West, 1937

Slightly further afield was Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and architectural school. This bizarre building warrants its own dedicated blog entry, which will follow.

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Vintage photo of US Federal Building and Courthouse, 1961 

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Vintage photo of City Centre Motel, 1959

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Vintage drawing of Hanny’s, 1947

 

Palm Springs, Sunnylands

Sunnylands, a stunning 200 acre estate containing a 25,000 sq ft mid century house, three guest cottages, a private 9-hole golf course and 13 man-made lakes was the winter retreat of the late ambassadors and all-round power couple, Walter and Leonore Annenberg.

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Sunnylands, terrace of main house

The pair frequently hosted famous entertainers, political leaders and basically anyone rich and/or influential at the sprawling estate (often referred to as “Camp David of the West”) from when it was completed in 1966 all the way through to 2009 when ownership passed onto The Annenberg Foundation Trust upon Leonore Annenberg’s death.

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Sunnylands, main house exterior

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Sunnylands, main house exterior shots

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Sunnylands, view of main house from across lake

The estate, which was almost completely hidden from public view by a pink-brick wall and a thick belt of eucalyptus, olive and tamarisk trees, was open to the public for tours during our stay in Palm Springs. Our tour began at the 15,000-square-foot visitors’ centre, designed by Frederick Fisher and Partners of Los Angeles in a compatible neo-modernist style and situated on 15 acres of desert gardens adjacent to the estate, from which we were transported to the main house by golf buggy.

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Sunnylands visitors centre, interior

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Sunnylands visitors centre – front, interiors and cafe

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Sunnylands visitors centre, exterior from back

The 1966 main house, with its distinctive pink Mayan roof, was designed by mid century architect A. Quincy Jones in his signature style, namely spacious, open rooms on a single floor with vast stretches of glass walls offering views of the pool, the golf course and the purple San Jacinto Mountains.

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Sunnylands, main house entrance courtyard

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Sunnylands – changing rooms, rose garden (clearly not in season) and side entrance

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Sunnylands, terrace of main house

The main, almost temple-like entrance opened into a vast atrium and living room featuring a bronze Eve by Rodin at its centre. Eve was accompanied by a similarly significant art collection on the walls acquired by the couple, with about 50 works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Andrew Wyeth, and Monet (though most of these paintings were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art following Walter Annenberg’s death in 2002; the ones still up on the walls were high-tech facsimiles in perfect replicas of the original gilt frames). The rest of the house seemed to branch off the central atrium, with an almost overwhelming run of interconnected rooms that flowed on from one another.

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Sunnylands, atrium in main house with Eve at centre

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Sunnylands, living area in main house (part of atrium)

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Sunnylands, living area in main house (part of atrium)

The interiors and virtually every piece of furniture were designed by William Haines and Ted Graber, known for decorating the Reagan White House. The “Hollywood Regency” style was quite unlike anything I’ve seen paired with mid century architecture before: it was maximalist in a really chintzy sort of way featuring things like cream-linen sofas embroidered with pale-blue floral motifs;  lacquered coffee tables, rare Chinese objects encased under glass tops, an entire wall display of Steuben glass, a sunshine yellow master bedroom, Meissen porcelain, Regency gilded silver and Ming vases. I can’t say that it was all to my taste but I couldn’t help but admire its sheer opulence.

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Sunnylands, dining room in main house

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Sunnylands – private sitting rooms, master bedroom and guest bedroom in main house

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Sunnylands, guest suite with sunken bar (behind sofa)

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Sunnylands – reception room in main house

While the interior decor and furnishings were a bit of an acquired taste, the views out onto the grounds from the terrace (where photography was finally permitted) were undeniably spectacular.

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Sunnylands, view of San Jacinto Mountains from terrace of main house

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Sunnylands, view from terrace of main house

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Sunnylands, view of San Jacinto Mountains from terrace of main house

Photographs of main house interiors courtesy of a Google image search – photography was not permitted inside the main house during the tour.

Palm Springs sightseeing

Aside from nosing around desert modernist houses, we also tried to fit in seeing everything else that Palm Springs had to offer from a mid century/sightseeing perspective (which, as it happens, was quite a lot).

Palm Springs City Hall (1952-1957)

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Palm Springs City Hall, main entrance

Palm Springs City Hall was a classic Albert Frey mid century design built between 1952 and 1957. Frey incorporated a distinctive portico overhang at the main entrance with a circular cut out (framing three tall palm trees which shoot up out of it) and used aluminium piping cut at right angles to create brise soleil, shielding the front of building from the intense morning and early afternoon sun. The facade and most of building reportedly looks much the same today as it did when it was completed in 1957. The interiors were comparatively dreary.

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Palm Springs City Hall – exterior details and dreary interior

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Palm Springs City Hall, main entrance

Sunnylands Estate (1966)

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Sunnylands Estate, exterior of main house

The mid century Sunnylands estate was developed in the early 1960s and was home to influential couple Walter and Leonore Annenberg. Located at Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope Drives, the property has been the vacation site of numerous celebrities and public officials including several US presidents. While the exterior and gardens were indisputably stunning, the interiors were an interesting, debatably attractive blend of mid century modern and premium American chintz. A separate blog entry dedicated to the estate will follow.

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Sunny lands Estate – gardens, visitors centre interior and main house interior

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Sunnylands Estate, exterior of Visitors Centre (2012)

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (1949-1963)

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Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, Mountain Station (E. Stewart Williams) at summit

Probably Palm Springs’ most popular tourist attraction, this gondola ride treated us to a double-digit temperature drop, snow-covered mountains, some interesting mid-century architecture (the rotating cars and the angular stations at both ends were constructed between 1949 and 1963 and designed by renowned mid century architects Albert Frey and E. Stewart Williams) and a view of the entirety of the Coachella Valley when we reached the top.

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Palm Springs Aerial Tramway – summit, Peaks Restaurant inside Mountain Station and gondola

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Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, mountains and rear of Mountain Station 

Bank of America (1959)

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Bank of America, exterior

Located at the south end of Palm Canyon Drive, the Palm Springs branch of Bank of America was designed by Victor Gruen Associates and built in 1959. The architects were reportedly inspired by the shape of le Corbusier’s chapel in Ronchamp but seemingly decided to take the building in a more bold direction with the rounded edges and primary colour palette. I thought it looked like something out of The Flinstones i.e. just on the wrong side of cartoonish.

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Bank of America, exterior and interior of bank

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Bank of America, exterior

Tramway Gas Station (1963-1965)

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Tramway Gas Station exterior

Designed by Albert Frey and Robson C Chambers and built in 1963-65, this former gas station with its distinctive cantilevered wedge-shaped metal canopy was converted into the Palm Springs visitors centre in the 2000s after a long period of disrepair and a unsuccessful stint as an art and sculpture gallery. It is referred to as the Tramway Gas Station due to its location at foot of Tramway Road, the long road leading to the entrance for the Palm Springs aerial tramway.

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Tramway Gas Station – canopy and interior (visitors centre)

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Tramway Gas Station exterior

Saint Theresa Elementary Church (1969)

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Saint Theresa Elementary Church, exterior (image from the spaces.com)

St. Theresa elementary church was designed in 1969 by William Cody, one of the forerunners of modernist architecture in Palm Springs. The church featured a vast concrete wall, which curved upward like an inverted arch, surrounding the church and blocking wind, street noise and quite a lot of light – the church was cool and dark inside. This was reportedly international so that worshippers could forget the outside world and focus on the spiritual character.

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Saint Theresa Elementary Church – interior detail and exterior 

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Saint Theresa Elementary Church, interior

Shell Gas Station (1964)

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Shell Gas Station, exterior

Until recently a Shell Gas Station, this structure was designed by architect William F. Cody in 1964. This is the last of five architect-designed mid century gas stations in Palm Springs that still operates as a gas station.

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Shell Gas Station, detail of pumps and exterior 

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Shell Gas Station, exterior

Ace Hotel (1965/2009)

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Ace Hotel, Swim Club

Opened in 2009 on the site of a converted Howard Johnson motel built in 1965, the Ace Hotel had a slightly irritating modernist meets Americana ironic/hipsterish vibe. Everything seemed to have been designed for the explicit purpose of looking good on Instagram. The hotel was broken down into different buildings (that made up the original motel), most of them facing a central pool, the location for pool parties and DJ sets frequented by Coachella festival-going types.

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Ace Hotel, exterior

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Ace Hotel, view from upper stairway

The Shops at Thirteen Forty Five (1955)

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The Shops at Thirteen Forty Five, exterior

A collective of 14 rather expensive shops selling clothes and mid-century homewares in a very photogenic 1955 E. Stewart Williams-designed building with a pink facade in Uptown Palm Springs. It was recommended by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop site (“We would trek from LA to Palm Springs for a visit to The Shops at Thirteen Forty Five alone!”) which gives a good idea of the kind of place it was.

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The Shops at Thirteen Forty Five – pink exterior and inside some of the shops

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The Shops at Thirteen Forty Five, inside some of the shops

Antique shopping at South Palm Canyon Drive

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Sunny Dunes Antique Mall

I found most of the shopping in Palm Canyon Drive, the main shopping street in Palm Springs, to be expensive and a bit pretentious (in the same vein as The Shops at Thirteen Forty Five – see above) so I was pleased to discover this cluster of antique, vintage, art, and thrift stores set along East Sunny Dunes Road and Industrial Place. My favourite stores were Sunny Dunes Antique Mall and the Antique Galleries of Palm Springs, both warehouse-like spaces containing labyrinthine mazes of rooms filled with vintage tat to buy. Prices weren’t exactly flea market level but were reasonable/affordable enough (the average price for a single item was about $25).

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Shopping inside Antique Galleries of Palm Springs

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Antique Galleries of Palm Springs, art studio/store

Other sights

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Unidentified mid century motel and trailer

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Coachella Valley Savings and Loan Building (now Chase Bank), 1960

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Coachella Valley Savings and Loan Building, 1956