During my recent trip to Palm Springs, I took another look at this Albert Frey landmark.
Prominently located along Tahquitz Canyon Way (it is one of the first buildings you encounter as you shuttle past the well-manicured grounds of the airport), Palm Springs City Hall is well worth a visit, its pure geometry and unexpected materials a refreshing take on the town's more pop-infused "Mid-Century Modern" vibe. Designed by celebrated architect Albert Frey and originally constructed between 1952 and 1956, Palm Springs City Hall reflects the adaptive spirit of the city's celebrated architecture and remains a key moment in what we now like to call Desert Modernism. Though the building was a joint venture of the firm Clark, Frey, and Chambers (in collaboration with Williams, Clark, and Williams), historians attribute the design primarily to the Swiss-born Frey, who famously worked under Le Corbusier before moving to the United States in 1930 (he arrived in Palm Springs just four years later). The city hall would become one of Frey's most significant commissions- the building's playful minimalism emblematic of the architect's low-key, yet always refined, modern vision.
Shaped by the doctrine of European Modernism, Frey created a design for a new city hall that would both adapt to the surrounding landscape and reinforce the relationship between form and function. Framed by a dramatic mountain backdrop, the municipal building, made of sandblasted masonry, is low and linear with outdoor walkways and grassy lawns appealing to the warm, arid climate. The building's plan consists of two contrasting but connected volumes- a long administrative wing containing a canopied main entrance and office spaces and the council chambers, a public meeting hall with a unique stepped appearance. Though visually distinctive, the two parts of the building are cleverly tied together via a series of cylindrical sun-shades (made of metal piping, cut at an angle). Both practical and visually appealing, the shadow-casting screens shield the walkways and the floor-to-ceiling office windows from the hot desert sun and add an interesting texture to the rectilinear building's straightforward geometry.
Though the repetitive brise soleils (sun-shades) are a striking and memorable detail, it is really Frey's treatment of the main entrances that proves the most dynamic. Driven by the symbolic value of its public function, Frey created an almost classical entrance for the council chamber. Marked by a circular concrete canopy supported by four columns, the entrance to the assembly space recalls the form of the Greek tholos (beehive tomb) and is crowned by the words "The People Are the City". In contrast, a flat corrugated metal canopy with a large open oculus defines the entrance to the city offices. In Frey's shaded manipulation of space, materials, and texture, Palm Springs City Hall succeeds as a structure simple in form, pure in intent, and sensitive to its surroundings.
An international interpretation of the Palm Springs vernacular, Frey's design elegantly expresses its function and the local conditions. The iconic building still maintains a high degree of integrity despite numerous additions constructed after Frey's involvement with the project. Today, Albert Frey is recognized as a founding father of the Desert Modern movement, while his series of Palm Springs landmarks (see the Tramway Gas Station, Frey House II, and the Raymond Loewy House) have come to define the city's distinctive and enduring landscape, making Frey synonymous with Palm Springs style.
A version of this post was originally published on July 12, 2017.
All photographs by author (2019).
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