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SIGHTS AROUND TOWN : A Lone Visionary : UCSB exhibit celebrates the work of architect Albert Frey, who found in Palm Springs a wide-open canvas for his ideas.

March 19, 1992|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is Palm Springs, circa 1953. The renowned, if reclusive, architect stands, arms crossed, staring into the vast distance of the desert landscape--if not directly into the future. Behind him stands what looks like some sort of UFO-like contraption, a structure of corrugated metal out of which rises a turret fitted with porthole windows.

Welcome to the house, and the world, of Albert Frey, Modern architect, and the most renowned architectural figure to make Palm Springs his permanent address.

The image projected in Julius Schulman's dramatic photograph, one of many in the fascinating current exhibition celebrating Frey's work at the UC Santa Barbara Art Museum, is that of a solitary visionary, perched in his own outpost. And, in fact, Frey's history bears out that image.

Frey is now 89, semi-retired and still living in Palm Springs--but not in the Buck Rogers-esque domicile he once called home. The very fact that he landed in Palm Springs raises pressing questions, as it did at a recent panel discussion at UCSB when the Frey show opened.

How is it that a Swiss-born architect, a man with radical ideas who was a protege of proto-Modernist architect Le Corbusier, wound up in the desert city that plays host to the Bob Hopes and Frank Sinatras of the world?

The question effectively stumped the panel, including curator Joseph Rosa (who authored the new Frey book published by Rizzoli), UCSB architectural historian David Gebhard and noted architectural photographer Schulman, whose elegant black and white work graces the Rizzoli book and this exhibition.

But the fact is that Frey, upon taking an assignment there in the early '30s, found in Palm Springs a wide-open environment that was ideal for his theoretical principles and aesthetic objectives. Where cities such as New York came saddled with architectural history and urban density, Palm Springs was a clean, dry canvas, stretching in all directions.

In a sense, if Frey hadn't discovered Palm Springs, he would have had to invent just such a place in his mind. His particular westward migration had to do with seeking out a ripe locale for his new ideas about a pure sense of design and the experimental use of such then-unorthodox materials as corrugated metal, fiberglass, asbestos cement board and canvas.

All this, decades before Frank Gehry started flinging chain-link fence and corrugated metal around.

One of the stars behind the scenes in the UCSB show is Paul Prince, the museum's exhibition designer whose task this time out was to create an environment that interacts with the exhibit rather than merely setting up an invisible screen.

Prince has built four scale models--prime architectural examples of Frey's Modern work (his later work has leaned away from the Modernist muse). In addition, Prince's series of jutting walls and sympathetic materials--corrugated metal, screens and odd panels--complement and reflect the architect's own early tendencies.

One of Frey's earliest utopian notions was the Aluminaire House of 1930-31, an experimental prototype for a portable house built primarily of wood and aluminum. It is historically significant as one of the earliest American-built examples of Corbusian architecture, with its clean, unadorned, style-free dispersal of geometric volumes.

Frey also created a canvas-wrapped, elevated vacation house for his partner, A. Lawrence Kocher. In 1934, he headed west to create the Kocher-Sampson building, the first of his numerous Palm Springs structures, a combination office-home building for Kocher's brother. In a sense, he never really looked back.

In Frey's houses, the inside-outside duality is sometimes blurred. In his own Frey House II of 1963-64--a deceptively simple looking trapezoidal structure built high on a mountainside--a huge boulder "invades" the interior and becomes a prominent feature. To complete the picture of design irreverence, a light dimmer switch is casually placed on this geological intruder.

His Loewy House of 1946 involved a swimming pool that runs under the exterior wall of the living room. The Mirrored Pavilion of 1986 visually "dissolves" into the surrounding foliage by virtue of mirror panels lining the outer walls. It's a clever camouflage scheme with philosophical undertones.

There are other interesting quirks in Frey's ouevre, including the gas station with a triangular, upward tilting roof extending over the pump bays--looking like an abstracted Concorde jet. His North Shore Yacht Club on the Salton Sea takes its design cues from shipbuilding.

Looking at the Frey exhibit, one gets a rare and nostalgic glance at the Modernist spirit in action. Apart from that whimsical-looking sci-fi turret on the addition to Frey House I, the architecture conveys a wonderful sense of purity, purpose and Spartan intelligence.

Architecture is still the most public of art forms, but appreciating its finer examples requires trips to the field. One measure of the success of the UCSB show is that it gives you a hankering to take a little site-specific sightseeing trip to Palm Springs.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Albert Frey: Modern Architect" and "Joyce Lightbody: Bell Play" at the UCSB Art Museum, through April 19.

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