Palm Springs City Hall is a great example of modern architecture. It exemplifies Desert Modernism. The building looks much like it did when it was built. So, a visit is almost like stepping back in time. And, that’s on purpose. Here’s why.
Did you ever have contests with your friends as a kid? Who can jump the farthest, run the fastest, eat the most? But the thing is, these competitions don’t stop when we become adults. That’s why the Eiffel Tower was only the world’s tallest building for 40 years.
We, as individuals want the world to know the best story about ourselves. But, we have to make the story up as we go along. We start out, perhaps as the fastest runner on the block. Hopefully, we grow into the best in some aspect of our profession.
Buildings tell many stories like this. And not just about the architects or engineers that design them. Buildings can teach us about the history of a place, the nature of our humanity; they can even tell us something about the cycles of life.
If you love Desert Modernism, you know Palm Springs city hall as a paragon of the aesthetic. And if you’re not yet a Modernism fan, you’ll find the building on your right just as you leave the Palm Springs Airport. It’s worth a stop in the parking lot to have a look around.
For some, the building won’t yet be old enough to be interesting. It’s just 66-years young. Perhaps to you, it’s just a simple building composed of two adjoining wings. The upper level is comprised of the Council Chambers. The lower wing contains offices and the main entrance. But, here’s another perspective on why you should care about this building.
A city hall is not just the building where the “business of the people” is transacted. It’s a symbol of what the city aspires to become. It’s the city and its people’s way to tell their story about themselves.
Toronto built its modernist city hall in 1965. Dallas built its in 1977. Palm Springs built its current city hall in 1952. This has always been a city unafraid to move forward. We are a village with big ambitions. This is our story as we choose to tell it.
What else do you want to know about us? Well, stand in the parking lot for a bit longer. Keep looking at the building, and you’ll find the answer.
You were thinking “shade” weren’t you. Just what I thought. We do get sun here, over 350 days of it each year. And, the sun is great and all, but sometimes you just want shade. That’s why Albert Frey, the Swiss-born architect that designed the building, included a large canopy over the office entrance and entrance to the city council’s chambers.
The canopy above the chambers says, “The people are the city.” About half the population of Palm Springs only lives here part-time. This is a resort town, where people go for weekend poolside relaxation or to escape gloomy weather up north. Palm Springs embraces you even if you can’t be here all of the time. The sun will still be shining when you return. The business of the people will still get done.
Along the front corridor, you’ll notice vertical shading as well. There are panels of angled tubes in front of some offices. The tubes are quite wide to let in light and air. But they are pointed towards the ground so direct sunlight doesn’t bother office workers.
Most of the front patio area, however, is open to the sun. This large swath of patio boasts an undulating edge that steps down towards the parking lot. It’s a great place to have your picture taken. If you take the picture facing west, you’ll capture the main entrance patio and the majestic San Jacinto Mountains. If you take the picture facing east, you’ll get the council chamber canopy and a glimpse of the calming Palm Springs airport. Who’d ever think that a picture of an airport would be calming? But, this one is. Trust me.
The bright sun here makes colors pop. Green glows. Yellow shines. Pink look electric, like a flash of lightning that never fades. City Hall is no exception to the use of color. There is a band of corrugated metal painted yellow near the roof on the west side of the building. The underside of all the canopies on the building are painted turquoise. Yes, this color mimics the sky. But, it also deters feathered creatures from building nests. Our winged friends see the blue and also think “sky.”
Probably the first thing you noticed about city hall is the three palm trees towering above the front entrance canopy. A city with the name Palm Springs should have palm trees at city hall don’t you think? They look especially dramatic at night when the canopy is lit up.
Walking up the shallow steps to city hall, underneath the canopy, past the trees, this could be a theatre. It feels like a place you’d go to see a show. The building isn’t showy, per se. But, it suggests that there’s a magical performance waiting for you just behind those glass doors.
In short, modern architecture is a design style that was first popular from the 1920s-1950s. What attributes should a structure have to be considered modern architecture? These buildings are simplistic in nature, meaning the use of anything decorative is taboo.This style of modern architecture can be summed up in three words: “less is more.”
Frilly moldings are simplified or completely taken away. Do not expect to see traditional windows surrounded by frames, set in the middle of the wall. Rather, expect to see glass from floor to ceiling or ribbons of glass near the roof line.
This type of architecture commonly uses vertical and horizontal elements to produce a dramatic effect. Think about the long horizontal lines of the front entrance canopy against the tall and thin Mexican Fan Palms.
The finished product will make you feel stress-free, at peace and able to appreciate simplicity. That is what Palm Springs is all about. The easy good life in the desert. That is our story as we chose to tell it in our city hall.
A native of Zurich, Switzerland, Albert Frey, who was born in 1903 and obtained his degree in architecture at the Institute of Technology Winterthur Switzerland. He began his career in Belgium. His minimalist concepts, bringing the outside in and his proactive lines are his signature. He is considered a “founder of desert modernism.”
Once he got a taste of the desert, he felt an awakening inside of him. Palm Springs was like no other place he had ever been. He knew he had found a place he could call home. He was a gentle, non-aggressive gentleman who did not feel the need to produce big glamorous structures. He owned a convertible, loved hiking and practiced yoga. He figured out how to use the climate and the terrain to his advantage in his architectural endeavors.
Frey landed in Palm Springs in 1939 where he worked with John Porter Clark for nearly twenty years! In addition to the two houses that Frey built for himself, the duo built numerous residences. The bulk of their work can be seen in the many commercial buildings that are in and surround Palm Springs.
There are hundreds of great modernist buildings in Our Little Valley. You can read about some of them on our blog. Our article about Cultural Tours includes more information about modern buildings around town. Our article on Sunnylands will tell you about a 25,000 square foot modernist home in Rancho Mirage. You can also visit the Palm Springs Art Museum to get a glimpse of more Desert Modernism.
We hope this article has provided helpful information about Palm Springs City Hall. We think it’s a great building. And hopefully, now you do too. Frey is responsible for other modernist buildings around Palm Springs, one of which is the popular Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
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