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Palm Springs

This is the second to last post (I think) to come out of my California trip in April - what a mass of images that tour provided.  Following an intense week in ridiculously gi-normous and uber-urban Los Angeles, we felt we needed an injection of raw nature so headed east for Palm Springs (via some very scary 14 lane LA highways!!) 

I knew Palm Springs was an oasis for modernist architecture and wow, did they get that right - but just as thrilling, the desert got thrown in too! My first real-life experience of this kind of extreme landscape - which I found scary as scary as the highways in it's own way.

Everything's about Palms, as you'd expect.

Many of my pictures are of hotels - of which there are a huge number.  Apparently, after gently decaying for a couple of decades Palm Springs got re-discovered by the cool set and large private houses and old motels were reborn as trendy boutique hotels.
Above is the famous Del Marcos Hotel, designed by William F Cody

The most unexpected and important visual feature of Palm Springs is the desert mountain backdrop.  
All the roads at one side of town come to a halt at a sheer, vertical face of the San Jacinto mountains.  (Actually, from my limited observations in California, it's only the mountains which  put a stop to the continuous urban sprawl)

Many of the Modernist buildings have been beautifully restored - we wandered around trying to pick our favourites but it was too hard

One thing I didn't expect and which I was very impressed by was the colours used in the building materials - stone, concrete, render, paint etc.  The colours echo exactly those in the desert and mountains and because of this, even though the geometrical forms are the antithesis of shapes found in the natural environment, the colour enables the architecture to live perfectly in this setting.

I would never have envisaged lilac-pink for a modernist - or any - building, but how fantastic with the sludgy purple and bracken-brown.

Textured grasses as contrast to flat surfaces work amazingly - and are everywhere.

My first sandstorm!!  So exciting - only ever seen one in the film Laurence of Arabia.   This is the road from Palm Springs to the Mohave Desert and Joshua Tree.

In terms of creating abstract photographic compositions Palm Springs architecture hands it over on a plate.

I was taken aback to find voluptuous, intensely coloured southern Mediterranean shrubs and flowers. Magenta and shocking pink Bougainvillea were everywhere along with every type of summer flower in huge abundance. (more in future Palm Springs post).  Of course by rights, none of these flowers should have been growing here!!! After all rainfall is literally nil.

At Palm Springs they developed their own Modernist style called Desert Modernism. The town sprung up in early Hollywood days when rich film stars vied with each other to commission the coolest and hippest young architects to build them houses to party and relax in.  It's a fascinating architectural history and they do tours of the best houses in Modernism Week in February

The famous Del Marcos hotel again. We stayed here - nice architecture, shame about the shabby interior - and the service!

Del Marcos at night.  Lots of the buildings are lit up at night - they look wonderful, I specially like the palm trees with fairy lights

Obviously cacti are de rigeur

Here and in other parts of the desert, I was amazed by the impossible situations people managed to build their houses. I took this picture on a zoom - it was way up the side of the mountain, virtually camouflaged from a distance.

This is part of the museum.  See the horizontal line of rock on the mountain-side? That's a steep path we took, photos from the top further on.

I thought these high-up, horizontal house with their palms and shaded verandas were idyllic - really the mid-century modern dream

Empty lots were beautiful as these indigenous plants would sprout up fast and high

Just to give you a flavour of the typical lifestyle and demographic!

This was one of my favourite hotels - the Horizon (also by William Cody)It was restored a few years ago and is an iconic Mid-Century masterpiece. Read an interesting history of the buildingLots of famous clients back in the day, Sinatra and Elvis to name but two. But then they all hung out in Palm Springs -seems it was party central.

The setting really is to die for.

There are many private house at Palm Springs and to tell the truth it isn't always easy to know if they were built in the mid-century or in the style of.

But one thing's for sure, as a European it was a mind-altering experience to see SO MUCH MODERNISM in one place! We can only dream of that, in Britain people prefer pastiche Tudorbethan, worse luck.

I found the gardens totally sculptural and exotic

But in a way I preferred these gorgeous empty building lots colonized by desert plants which don't require massively expensive piped water to keep them alive.

When we climbed above the town and looked down we were staggered not to see one solar panel on any of the hundreds of flat roofs!

The acid yellowy-green, the grey concrete, white rock, the dark green palms and the blue sky - certainly not an English palette.

Talking of life-style, when I took these last few pictures we were wandering around a residential area on a beautiful Sunday morning - it was about 70 degrees with a light breeze - perfect. But the only people we saw were sitting inside, looking out, with the air-con on. Absolutely nobody was sitting on their terrace with a pot of coffee and the morning papers.  Now that's a life-style trait which I think the Europeans have got covered - we really love alfresco.

THIS is the proper setting for gravel and rock, PLEASE NOT in a tiny front English garden in a damp grey climate!

Even the mail box is cool. 

So this is how it looks from that path going up the mountain.........

......and then you get higher........

.......and higher - and see that what you thought was just a cute little town with a few cool houses actually goes on for ever and ever and ever as far as your eye can see ...... But then that's America!
I had to end with this shot - here I am even higher up the San Jacinto Mountains, where a tribal ranger is pointing out the San Andreas fault lying under the distant Mojave desert.  See, I told you it was scary old place!

You might like my other posts on California:
Los Angeles
Culver Hotel
Trompe L'oeuil Photoboxes, Culver City
Hayden Tract, LA


  1. Stunning photos and so many of them, what a bizarre place but looks truly fantastic. I see you must have been in your element, if not for the commentary I would have guessed you had cast most of those buildings and probably the cacti too. Reminds a little of one of my favourite films ever Zabriski Point which has been the source of some Sculpture for me. And another favourite film too, Fear and Loathing, the sound track would be perfect listening for cruising round Palm Springs!!

  2. Anonymous19/11/11

    Love this story and the pics.
    Just planning a trip to South West USA so this provides some timely inspiration.
    The best of your pics (the ones where the low horizontal buildings look almost lost in the landscape) remind me of the work of Alex Hartley.
    Pete Edwards,


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