Language of Architecture –
Palm Springs, CA

From the late 1930s the artificial oasis Palm Springs was established in the Californian desert. For many years it was famous for its modernist architecture, its stars, its remarkably long sunshine hours and its—nomen est omen—innumerable palm trees. Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Albert Frey and others shaped its urban image. With their sophisticated simplicity, many of its bungalows, set parallel to the streets, are today among the icons of mid-century modernism. If you move through this town online, using satellite images or Google Street View, you come across an offer that is still unthinkable in European cities: In the real estate database Zillow a large number of the buildings are priced and presented for sale—in spring 2020, for example, there were a total of “670 homes for sale in Palm Springs, CA”—and they can be viewed virtually with numerous additional photographs of interior rooms. Detailed descriptions of all the data worth knowing provide intimate insights into “the entire lifecycle of owning and living in a house,” according to the seller’s website.

On site, in the desert town, the situation is quite different: “Private Property” signs make it clear that the curious are to respect the private sphere of the inhabitants; “Maximum Security” notices even warn of an “armed response.” The access roads are regulated with “Speed Limit 25.” Security e-cars do their rounds. As a result, only the façades facing the street, the photogenically designed front gardens and the walls, cleverly concealed by plants, are visible—not the patios, and not the green areas and pools located behind the houses, familiar from architectural guides. Instead they are open to the almost untouched, genuine mountain landscape and thus protect their owners from the gaze of the public—which was a necessity for a Hollywood elite looking for a refuge.

As a passer-by, you find yourself in a magical setting, onto which innumerable expectations are imposed. However, you have no permission to enter, and you can see only as far as the eye or the photo lens reaches. In Language of Architecture the impression of a hermetic seal thus manifests itself. Detached and placeless, the silhouettes of the buildings, photographed in parallel, become flat, geometric bodies, apparently inserted between tall, upstanding palm trees. Placed in the background, shapes from the library of technical drawing programs call up associations with the origins of this town, once planned on the drawing board. Intense colors and passages between Californian sunsets and the color spectrum of photographic sensor technology enhance the surreal and artificial quality of these ensembles. (Ruth Horak)