The architects who built Palm Springs: Albert Frey

The architects who built Palm Springs: Albert Frey

One of the first great architects to bring the International Style to Palm Springs and the wider region, Frey (1903-1998) is widely recognised as one of the trailblazers of the area’s remarkable architectural legacy. Notable accomplishments include his own home, Frey House II – one of his most well known works – as well as the Loewy House and the Tramway Gas Station with its famous ‘flying’ canopy.

When you look at the low, long and linear forms of Albert Frey’s buildings, which appear modern, but also instantly at one with the arid landscape of the USA’s Coachella Valley, it is hard to believe that this founding father of Desert Modernism in fact hails from the snowy mountains of Switzerland. Yet a look at Frey’s illustrious career at the forefront of his profession, which led him from the heart of European modernism to working for Le Corbusier in Paris and designing buildings in New York, and it becomes clear that his worthy accolades are no accident. 

Born in Zurich in 1903 and coming from a more traditional, building-orientated academic background – rather than being influenced by the more style led movements of his time, predominantly the Beaux-Arts – Frey worked in his home country and Belgium, before finding a position at Le Corbusier’s Paris office. There, he worked on seminal projects with the great master, such as Villa Savoye, together with co-workers of the likes of Josep Lluís Sert and Charlotte Perriand. 

Arriving in Palm Springs for the first time in 1934, via New York, where he was at the time practising, he ‘fell in love with the area’, says the Palm Springs Modernist Committee. Attracted by the Californian desert landscapes – and no doubt the good weather – he returned in 1939, relocating there permanently and setting up a partnership with fellow architect and long-term collaborator John Porter Clark, who was already prolific in the area (one of the latter’s most well known works is the 1950s Palm Springs City Hall, created in partnership with Albert Frey, E. Stewart Williams and Robson Chambers). 

Swiss-born Frey was one of the key pioneers of what became known as ‘desert modernism’. Photography: Don Buckner

Frey’s career stretched over 60 years and is varied, but some of his residential designs – most notably his own home, Frey House II – probably form his most well known works. Perched on the mountainside, majestically overlooking the city of Palm Springs, just a short drive from the city centre and on the west end of Tahquitz Canyon Way, Frey House II is as iconic a desert house as they get.

Completed in 1964 as the architect’s second home in the town, the residence is the result of careful calculations of the site’s stone-filled topography and the sun’s path. Mixing modern materials such as glass and metal, with local stone, Frey composed a compact, steel-framed structure with little impact to the environment. Still, it features key the Palm Springs staples, such as a swimming pool and sun deck.  

‘The contrast between the natural rock and the high tech materials is rather exciting’, Frey said of the house in a past interview. Now, Frey House II is owned and managed by the Palm Springs Museum of Art – the architect bequeathed it with its contents to the local institution, along with an endowment for its preservation, so that his work can serve as an example and experience of what he stood for. 

Frey’s portfolio also includes the Aerial Tramway Valley Station (designed together with John Porter Clark), Cree House II (rare tours of which are available through the Palm Springs Modernism Week programme in February 2019), Frey House I (the architect’s own first designed home in Palm Springs), Loewy House, built for industrial designer Raymond Loewy, and of course the Tramway Gas Station, with its famous ‘flying’ canopy (which is now used as a visitors centre). 

Being one of the first great architects to bring the international style to Palm Springs and the wider region, Frey is widely recognised, way beyond his death in 1998, as one of the true pioneers of the area’s remarkable architectural legacy; his buildings often acting as the visual shorthand for what has been known ever since as Desert Modernism. §

Read more in our series on the architects who built Palm Springs here.

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