“Uncomfortable” Architecture


Last week I was in Palm Springs for my birthday, which turned out to be the perfect place to be. Preservation in general was on my mind, and here I was in one of the most architecturally well-preserved cities in our country.  What Palm Springs did for its mid-century architecture is sort of what I’d like to do with my own personal architecture of 58 years.  Yes, I’ll have what they’re having.

Located in the middle of the California desert and less than two hours from Los Angeles, Palm Springs is best known for its heyday of the 1950’s through the early 70’s, when it was frequented by the likes of Sinatra, Monroe, Bing, Dean, Elvis and Sammy.  And with that popularity came a building boom which ended up being the birth of Desert Modernism – a particular brand of mid-century architecture.  

The houses were built to blend in with the rustic surrounding mountains.  They had a sprawling footprint but low elevations.  They had large glass windows, and equally as large central fireplaces built out of local stone.  (Picture the Brady Bunch house, if you smooshed it down a little and gave it a flat roof.)  Some say these houses were the model for lots of low-cost, suburban development across the country.  The prefabricated Deck House is proof of that and can still be found populating our eastern shores.  

The commercial architecture of Palm Springs boomed as well, although it was more whimsical. It used bright colors and employed many of the shapes we associate with the times, like boomerangs and ovals and dramatic V-shaped roof lines.  And here it is, all preserved and still in its glory, in the middle of the California desert.

It’s so fun to see, and fun to talk about now, especially with the resurgence of the mid-century aesthetic.  But the impressive part of what Palm Springs did is that they started their preservation efforts in the late 1990’s.  That was hard to do.  Because it’s easy to kick and scream to protect a building hundreds of years old, but harder to think about preserving the architecture from the era right before your own.  To start something new, we sometimes feel the need to push back against what is – often with uncertain results. I’m sure you’ve winced like I do, while walking through a historic home that was gutted to make way for its 1970’s “improvements” of fake wood paneling and formica counters.  It’s sort of like when as a child I used to put dresses on my ancient house cat.  It’s just inherently not right. 

A current large-scale example is the passionate debate surrounding City Hall Plaza in downtown Boston.  It’s vast and looming and intimidating and unfriendly.  It’s built out of giant concrete slabs and actually uses more concrete with some brick for its “landscaping.”  The plaza was made with about a million steps, and there is nary a tree or squirrel or a blade of grass or even a park bench in sight.  Everyone hates it.  It takes up oodles of prime downtown real estate that could be used, it is argued, to build something so much better.  Boston Mayor Tom Menino wanted it torn down.  Mayor Marty Walsh even used its demolition as a platform during his electoral campaign.

And, hey, I totally get it.  The detractors are not wrong.  But maybe we’ve had enough “improvement” at this location?  

The construction of City Hall Plaza eradicated Old Scollay Square with its cobblestoned streets and its historically significant buildings.  In the 1960’s, when they revealed the designs for the new and improved City Hall that we know today, it was greeted with great enthusiasm.  Much of the public felt that the 19th century narrow streets and old buildings were holding their city back.  This new proposed architectural style (with the unfortunate name: Brutalist) was celebrated.  Out with the old, in with the new!  And good riddance Old Scollay Square.

As for Brutalist architecture?  I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.  In fact, really, it’s almost no one’s cup of tea.  But that building does accurately represent who we were, collectively, at the time.  We hate it now, but Brutalist architecture was popular for about a 20-year stretch.  It was bold, it was brash, and it was FRESH.  It was minimalist and built for the masses and was a celebration of the materials used to build it.  It did not lose itself in the nostalgia and romance of what everyone thought a building had to be.  

That thinking was so important, we collectively tore down a whole community in the name of it.  Its significance cannot be ignored.  It reminds me a little bit of the modern “splatter paint” artist Jackson Pollack.  Is what he produced actually amazing? I’m really not sure.  But the idea of what he was doing was revolutionary, and what we think of today as modern art was built, just a little bit, on his shoulders. For me, he has earned his place in our galleries. 

So, like I said, “improvement” is a tricky business.  I guess at the end of the day I feel about City Hall the same way I feel about older homes.  We are not obligated to live in discomfort in order to preserve our architectural history.  That’s not your cross to bear unless you buy a home that is truly significant historically.  But proceed with caution.  Don’t move into an older Victorian if you crave the aesthetic of a California ranch.  And don’t move into a Deck House and add crown molding, paned windows, and paneled doors that belong in a colonial.  Recognize what your home wants to be organically, and then go ahead and renovate within those confines.

The plaza surrounding city hall is actually in the midst of renovation.  It’s been talked about forever and if you believe the news, it’s about half done.  They are adding lots of trees for shade and some sloping walkways for wheelchairs and strollers.  All good ideas.  They are changes meant to soften some of that building’s sharp elbows, and I’m all for it.  

No word yet on the Brutalist building it surrounds, but I can’t help but hope they don’t put a dress on that old house cat.  I hope they find a way to lean-in to that brutal building, even though the instinct is to lean-out.  

It’s a concept I’m familiar with.  I just turned 58.

Jennifer Coles is a local interior designer. Her instagram is: @coles_color_and_design. Her website is: colescoloranddesign.com