Palm Springs in Yellow and Gray

palmsprings.jpgThe desert palate is grey and yellow now. The grey of sagebrush, and the vibrant yellow of daisy-like brittlebush that bursts in great round humps among the rocks.  In fact, it's gloriously golden absolutely everywhere in Palm Springs.  These plants flower only once or twice a decade, so I feel enormously grateful to have been there at the right time, not that my Hipstamatic does them justice.

Sunday was the last day of the Coachella Valley music festival and the girls had very reasonably agreed to a 5pm pick-up, forgoing the chance to see Thom Yorke or Phoenix. It's a school night, after all. With a happy two hours to spare, annotated map in hand, I embarked on an architectural tour of Palm Springs. Some of the best examples of mid-century modern can be found within spitting distance of Palm Canyon Drive. I tried but failed to visit the Elrod House (1968, John Lautner) on Southridge Drive, saw the Ship of the Desert (1936, Earl Webster & Adrian Wilson, and the stunning Kaufmann House (1947, Richard Neutra).

And here is the Julius Shulman photograph that made the house so famous:

palmsprings2.jpgIt takes a few years and a bit of re-education to appreciate mid-century design. Truthfully, it's taken me a while to become a fan. It does not have a European aesthetic, but conjures up the music of Copland and Groffe, bouffant hair-dos and and olive-spiked martinis, a burgeoning artist-class pushing to find a place to re-invent, and Palm Springs provided that. Nestled between mountain ranges (a tram to the top of the mountain goes through five zones, from the desert floor to snow and 8,000 feet in 14 minutes) it was a barren, rocky plain with hot springs, and tree-lined canyons containing magnificent waterfalls (Tahquitz Canyon, for example). It was, in fact, a desert oasis, waiting to be discovered. In April, with the brittlebush, the sagebrush, the orange of the California poppies, the indigo lupines and you will see why it was chosen in the middle of the last century as the birthplace for a new artistic movement.

A friend of mine, long ago, once pointed out that I was inspired by color, whereas others might respond to form, or shape. He is a wise man, now the head of an English department at a well-regarded American college. If I hadn't witnessed the desert landscape in yellow and grey, I'm not sure I would have had the same appreciation for the way the architecture fits into it. It was an epiphany of sorts. Palm Springs never really worked for me before. It felt faux, temporary even. This time, I saw how those long, sleek lines set themselves so perfectly into the rocky terrain, how the glass and space allow airflow, how the organic brown-grey of the concrete pulls together to not take away from the beauty of the mountains and their ever-changing colors. Have you seen the wide-open spaces of the California desert? It's overwhelmingly big and every time you look, the colors are different, the light is different.  The architecture can't begin to compete with that, so the simplicity, the clean profiles, and the absence of color is what works so well.


Bumble Ward is a blogger and writer living in Los Angeles.  She grew up with a Norwegian mother and an English father and spent every summer on an island in the Oslo fjord.