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Destination: Modernism

Palm Springs beckons visitors to its breathtaking architecture, which, in gentle partnership with the desert landscape, exudes serenity.


PALM SPRINGS — The gasps were audible as 50 pairs of eyes settled on the scene: a circular living room covered by an enormous, weighty cement dome, floor-to-ceiling glass walls revealing a stunning panoramic view of the city. If there is such a thing as an architectural nirvana, this may have been it.

The setting was the Elrod house, designed by John Lautner and now used primarily for entertaining by its current owner, former supermarket magnate Ron Burkle. The house was part of a tour and symposium last weekend sponsored by the Palm Springs Desert Museum titled "Modernist Residential Architecture in the Desert." The second annual two-day program included lectures, a panel discussion and a rare tour of sleek, dynamic homes by Lautner, Richard Neutra, E. Stewart Williams, William Cody and Crombie Taylor. While perhaps not household names even among those familiar with architecture, these were some of the American and European-born architects who were drawn to the desert's harsh, beautiful terrain from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Although many only know this resort town for its high kitsch and tacky factor and as a haven for golfers, former presidents and aging, overly tanned entertainers, it's received another distinction in recent years: mecca of modern architecture.

Modernism may be in the spotlight today simply because of the cyclical nature of tastes and styles, but there could be more to the attraction than just fashion. These homes exude a kind of pure peacefulness, an antidote to our frenetic lives.

The chance to experience such architecture up close drew hundreds of people from the area, as well as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and even Belgium. Some described it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these classic homes and to discover how owners approach restoring, decorating, maintaining and living in them. Under uncharacteristic gray skies, architects, artists, historians, designers and those with an intense passion for modernism convened to see in three dimensions some of the iconographic homes they had only seen in photographs. "In college, I had the Kaufmann house done by Neutra above my desk," said Palm Springs architect Michael Coon. "There are so many more hidden gems around."

From the clean, rectilinear lines of Neutra to Lautner's sensuously drawn, grand-scale designs, it's easy to see why architects chose this arid, bumpy terrain with its breathtaking vistas as their life-sized laboratory, constructing houses that used the then-virtually untouched landscape as foundation, frame, background and decoration, welcoming and utilizing the elements, making them an integral part of the home instead of shutting them out.

Lautner's Elrod house, the first stop on Saturday's sold-out bus tour, is a supreme example of modernist principals. Guests doffed their shoes and explored the living room, master bedroom suite, kitchen and guest rooms. Lautner's incorporation of organic elements was everywhere, from the boulders that pierce the house through various walls and windows to lacy vines that creep indoors. An infinity pool begins in the living room and ends outside, separated by huge glass motorized windows that can be retracted, completely opening up the living room to the outdoors.

It was, as Alan Hess, author of "Palm Springs Weekend," pointed out in his Sunday lecture, a supreme example of Lautner's use of natural metaphor (the cave-like entrance) as well as "an interpretive expression of the natural setting" and "a powerful sense of design. This is massive architecture."

"I could spend a lot of time in there," said one woman, gazing at a sunken marble tub in the master bath. A guest house below the main house features distinctive chevron pattern tiles and a rock-walled bathroom with a free-standing stone basin.

Dispelling Myths About Modernists

Neutra's Kaufmann house was another obvious favorite. This 3,200-square-foot 1946 home was bought by Brent and Beth Harris in 1992 and has undergone extensive restoration. It welcomes the outdoors through aluminum louvers, sliding-glass walls that retract to remove barriers to the outdoors, and a gloriette, a protected upper deck that creates more living space without violating the city's no-second-story ordinance.

Guests meandered through the house and grounds, marveling at the serenity of the design as they listened to Brent Harris' tales of his laborious restoration, including mining abandoned quarries to find the same stone used for an outside wall. The couple built a small pool house on the property that's used for living and entertaining, preserving the main house as a stunning and pristine example of Neutra's work.

The house also serves to dispel the myth that modernists like Neutra designed structures that were bare, stripped down and cold.

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