DNM Architecture is pleased to announce the opening of our Palm Springs regional office.
What is the allure of a 110 degree suburbia? Is it post war exuberance? An act of defiance against climate and logic? Is it a statement of democracy and free will? Sunstroke? Isn’t it a little bit weird?
Steven Pinker authored an excellent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature in which he discusses people’s need for a “leviathan” to bring order too society and allow it to flourish. Without such leviathans (usually referring to a government, monarch, warlord or other institution of authority) there can be chaos. Simplistically, we cede some of our rights to the leviathan in exchange for the security that our neighbor has done the same and will not stab or rob us randomly. To a greater or lesser degree, leviathans place us on a more level playing field within the confines of their influence, and we derive comfort, security and identity from its embrace.
Perhaps a leviathan does not have to be an actual institution like a government or a church to exercise its authority. Perhaps it can be a powerful idea or distinct environment.
Perhaps the harsh desert climate of Palm Springs acts as a great leviathan that subjugates and unites the simple tract houses of William Krisel with the rich exuberant forms of John Lautner in a single community baking under the sun. Maybe desert modernism succeeds not in defiance of its harsh climate but because of it and the order that it imposes impartially on houses and egos great and small to prioritize shelter from the sun, ventilation, low density, outdoor space, and even swimming pools.
This theory only works if combined with the another great leviathan, American Democracy. Asymmetry, pragmatic plans based on living patterns, and transparency all reflect messy democratic values and appeal to one root of the American identity, self-reliance. Although many of the homes in Palm Springs are large and obviously not economically accessible to middle class incomes, because of the harsh climate, they don’t employ traditional architectural forms that imply wealth or power (most of which have roots in colder northern Europe). All domestic architecture is subservient to the great desert leviathan. A butterfly roof can be perceived as an icon for old-fashioned self-made American optimism in its exuberance, both opening skyward and sheltering at same time. Or, it can just make us happy.
Pragmatism is another dimension to consider. If Le Corbusier first espoused the house as a machine for living, Palm Springs architecture, and much of the US post war architecture, presents the house as an appliance for easy living. Convenience and pragmatism are also values that cut across class and are highly valued by all socio-economic groups. Palm Springs architecture presents a somewhat mythical idea that despite our origins and incomes, we all have equal access to the great outdoors, to modern kitchens and, of course, again, to swimming pools.
The thread of modernism from Europe to Southern California is well known. As if only to give credence to this connection between a Le Corbusier’s “machine for living” and the far more pragmatic “appliance for living well,” Palm Springs even features the “Notre Dame de BofA,” a nearly perfect example of the sacred ceding to the profane. The house of worship is transformed into a city-scale ATM.
For architects, it is important to understand – as much as possible – why Palm Springs architecture or mid-century modern design generally seems to capture the imagination and uplift. In architecture, the ‘why’ informs the ‘what’. If architects want to capture the spirit of a place and bring it into new forms in new places, rather than blindly cloning (as this bank’s architect appears to have done!), they should step back and take time to consider whether that spirit is the result of a great climatic leviathan, or just sunstroke.