Steel and Shade: Donald Wexler and His Legacy in the Low and High Desert

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Backyard of Wexler home in El Rancho Vista Estates
Backyard of Wexler home in El Rancho Vista Estates

This week is the beginning of Palm Springs Modernism Week (Feb 17-27), in a week of architectural tours, lectures and exhibitions throughout the Palm Springs area that illuminates how modernism transformed this growing community at mid-century and continues to thrive to this day.

Palm Springs plays a critical role in the development of modernism in California and during the week many homes will be available for public viewing. Speakers include Alan Hess, Michael Stern, Donald Wexler, William Krisel, and architect Linda Taalman. Taalman, one of a new generation of architects making a mark on the desert in the industrial Modern tradition (see more below), previews the show:

One of Palm Springs prolific architect’s of this time, Donald Wexler, is also being recognized in an exhibition at the Palm Spring Museum  (Jan. 29- May 29) documenting his six decades of work. The exhibition features the drawings, photographs and models from the architect and models built in collaboration with architecture students at Cal Poly Pomona.Wexler concentrated his practice to the Coachella Valley, and designed a wide range of building types including houses, schools, banks and public buildings.

He is the architect of the Palm Springs International Airport, his largest project. His architectural research in the early part of his career focused on the development of a housing system using steel framing.

Working with the engineer Bernard Perlin and CalCraft and his partner at the time Richard Harrision, Wexler developed an innovative steel house system that could be configured in a variety of ways, using a post and beam structural steel frame and a system of panelized opaque steel walls and steel framed glass windows and doors. Several prototype model homes were built; however the larger 35-house community they were part of was never realized.

The innovation of this research continues to inspire architects to this day and on February 26, from 9 am- 6pm, in conjunction with the museum’s Architecture and Design Council, the museum will host a full day series of lectures, symposium and architectural tour that will examine Wexler’s legacy. Thomas Hines, author and historian, will give the keynote address, and David Nye will present a lecture on architectural innovation in midcentury in America.

Sidney Williams from the Palm Springs Museum, co-curator with Dr. Lauren Weiss Bricker, will moderate a discussion with contemporary architects who continue in Wexler’s legacy of innovative building systems and environmentally sensitive design including Linda Taalman, Barton Myers, and Lance O’Donnell. The finale of the day is a tour of several of Wexler’s steel houses, and houses by other architect’s continuing his legacy.

Off-grid itHouse by Taalman Koch Architecture, photograph by Patricia Parinejad, 2011
Off-grid itHouse by Taalman Koch Architecture, photograph by Sarah Eick

New Generation Makes its Mark on the High Desert

The legacy of low desert’s modernism is now thriving in the high desert. Both Taalman Koch Architecture and Lance O’Donnell, of O2 Architecture, are among those building on the  early experiments of Wexler in the current wave of innovative system-built steel houses.

Taalman Koch Architecture developed the itHouse, with their off-grid prototype built in the high desert in Pioneertown, and a dozen others built and in construction and planning stages throughout California, with two planned in the same high desert area.

Blue Sky Rock Reach house by O2 Architecture
Blue Sky Rock Reach house by O2 Architecture

O2 Architecture designed the prototype Blue Sky house built in neighboring Yucca Valley, and a second house started construction just this week.

Both the itHouse and the BlueSky house systems use a similar strategy of a pre-cut and pre-drilled bolted framing system that can be erected in a day. Similar enough in fact to be combined, a hybrid itHouse/BlueSky system house by Taalman Koch is in the works for a house built atop a large rock outcropping.

These post and beam framing systems provide the structure and armature for houses which celebrate the indoor / outdoor model of living propelled by early California modernism, with large expanses of glass connecting to outdoor courtyards and balconies.