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Desert deconstruction

Orderly to the extreme, perhaps spare to a fault? Whatever these landscapes are, they're far from natural.

March 27, 2008|Ann Japenga | Special to The Times

PALM SPRINGS — TO the north and south of my plebeian ranch-style home here, my neighbors are transforming their pads into midcentury modern showplaces. At one time all you needed to accomplish this was some orange paint and concrete blocks; nowadays the makeover involves a lot of chopping.

One neighbor ripped out the fig and lemon trees planted there 40 years before by the original owner. To the north, modernistas tore out a jungle of honeysuckle vines and asparagus ferns weaving in and out of an old fence.

All around my neighborhood, new owners are hacking off the blond skirts of the Washingtonia filifera palms and amputating tendrils of black dates. In the latest development, they are even shaving the rough bark of the palms, leaving a shiny blood-like surface.

The skinned palm look is very sleek, very atomic -- it goes back to the early days of modernism in the '40s. But it leaves nowhere for a collared lizard, roadrunner, orange oriole or barn owl to hide. It's not even good for the tree.

As I walk around the neighborhood, it's beginning to look like some modernists are intent on annihilating habitat and banishing nature. More yards -- some had resembled gardens in Pasadena with a loose, shady ambience and alcoves of privacy -- sport a minimalist look, with soldierly rows of tufted grasses, or lone agave spikes in seas of gravel or lawn.

But it wasn't supposed to be this way. The giants of modernism wanted their open floor plans and walls of glass to bring the outdoors in. One of the pioneering modernist landscape architects, John Ormsbee Simonds, aimed to work with the "want to be" of the land, just as Alexander Pope -- an 18th century English poet who protested an earlier wave of sterile landscaping -- urged consultation with "the genius of the place."

A man who understood the genius of the desert was Albert Frey, one of this region's most famous of modernist architects. When I moved here -- before the rediscovery of modernism -- he was a somewhat obscure eccentric who lived in a house on the hill with a boulder in his bedroom. He stood on his head daily, and studied the position of the sun for a year before deciding where to put his house.

When asked his guiding design principle, Frey once answered: "The respect for nature."

But now new midcentury moderns are extending the spare aesthetic of their interiors into the garden, rather then letting nature work its way in. Vickki Schlappi's yard has a lawn and two geometric rows of desert plants, topped off with a single skinny shaved palm. "I like clean, straight lines and I just wanted everything to pop," says Schlappi, a real estate agent. "I feel like I'm trying to set an example on the street."

She was inspired by a home, designed by Dan Palmer and William Krisel, in the Las Palmas neighborhood. Krisel, a landscape architect as well as an architect, designed yards with colorful gravel-filled geometric circles and squares. Because Krisel designed 2,500 modernist tract homes and condos in the Valley (he was associated with the Alexander Construction company) his board-game look has influenced the current hyper- orderly trend.

Krisel homes proliferated on the flats where the yards were often a blank slate. The architect calls his landscaping "appropriate and regional" rather than minimalist. "It's minimalist because it's the desert. You're supposed to be minimalist," Krisel says. "I consider the landscaping like a painting and since I'm a modernist I believe in abstract patterns and geometries that are sympathetic to the design of the building and the surroundings."

In defense of the new minimalists, you could say that, like Krisel, they are just doing the green thing by planting sparsely and ripping out lush old growth. (Disclosure: My water bill reflects the original moisture-sucking landscape that came with my 1963 home.)

But water conservation is not the only force behind the new look. The austerity vogue is not always driven by a liking for native plants. The look is catching on -- as trends do -- without much reasoning. Several homeowners say they saw yards with shaved trees and grid-like plantings and, thinking it looked cutting-edge, simply copied the design. As father of the graphic gardens, Krisel is not always happy with the result. "Sometimes a good thing can be ruined by people doing it badly," he says.

I wish I could discuss my concerns with nature boy Albert Frey himself, but he died in 1998. Instead I went for a drive with Les Starks, a local environmental activist who was buddies with Frey. We drove past yards that seemed comically denuded, with only a sprig of vegetation here and there.

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