We’re switching coasts today. From Carolina to California, claass HAUS takes a look at Albert Frey's iconic Palm Springs City Hall.
Initially constructed between 1952 and 1956 by celebrated architect Albert Frey, Palm Springs City Hall reflects the innovative, independent, and adaptive spirit of the city's architecture and remains one of the most important public buildings associated with Desert Modernism. While the building was a joint venture of the firm Clark, Frey, and Chambers (in collaboration with Williams, Clark, and Williams), historians attribute the building primarily to the Swiss-born Frey, who famously worked under Le Corbusier before moving to the United States. In many ways the building is emblematic of Frey’s experimental approach to modernism. The sandblasted terracotta-colored concrete block construction, flat roof, deep eaves of corrugated metal, and distinctively shaded windows would later characterize much of Frey’s sophisticated modernist style.
Shaped by the doctrine of European Modernism, Frey created a design for City Hall that reinforced the relationship between form and function. While the main volume of the building is symmetrical and linear, Frey created a separate more vertically-oriented space for the Council Chamber. The two parts differ drastically in design with the function of a public assembly space dictating the Chamber's form. Visually connecting the two contrasting volumes, a series of distinctive cylindrical brise soleils (sun shades) function as a covered walkway and shade the floor-to-ceiling office windows.
Though the unique brise soleils are a striking and memorable detail, it is really Frey's treatment of the building's main entrances that proves the most dynamic. Driven by the symbolic value of its public function, Frey created an elaborate (and dare I say 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 proves striking in its geometric expression. In contrast, a flat metal plane made of corrugated metal with a large open oculus puncturing the center defines the entrance to the more administrative City Hall.* In Frey's shaded manipulation of space, materials, and color, City Hall succeeds as a structure simple in form, pure in intent, and sensitive to its surroundings.
*The open circular void of the City Hall entrance directly corresponds to the size of the circular disk of the Council Chamber. Pretty great, right?
An international interpretation of the Palm Springs vernacular, Frey's design for City Hall elegantly expresses its function while also referencing the local conditions. The iconic building still maintains a high degree of integrity despite numerous additions constructed after Frey's involvement with the project. In 1956, the Clark, Frey, and Chambers partnership dissolved when John Porter Clark left to focus on larger commercial, institutional, and public projects. Frey and Robson C. Chambers continued to design a variety of structures in their signature modernist brand. Today, Albert Frey is recognized as a founding father of the Desert Modern movement. His series of landmarks, the Tramway Gas Station, Frey House II, the Raymond Loewy House, and Palm Springs City Hall came to define the city's innovative landscape, making Frey synonymous with Palm Springs style.
Photo at top- Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. City Hall, Palm Springs, California, 2009. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2013631642.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.