Photographs by Juergen Nogai, courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum The 1962 Steel House by Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison.
This weekend marks the kickoff of Modernism Week,
Palm Springs’s annual celebration of all things midcentury modern. One
of its highlights is “Steel and Shade: The Architecture of Donald
Wexler,” an exhibition at the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Wexler, 85, has practiced in Palm Springs for almost six decades,
developing an architecture that is acutely sensitive to the extremes of
the desert climate. Wexler’s all-steel Alexander houses, designed in
1962 with the structural engineer Bernard Perlin for the developers
George and Robert Alexander, were sustainable before sustainability was
trendy. Affordable, elegant and quick to assemble on site, thanks to a
prefabricated structural system, Wexler’s houses (their framing, roofs
and exterior siding are steel, with drywall interior siding) were the
perfect answer to the postwar housing boom. “Steel, concrete and glass
are ideal materials for the desert,” Wexler says. “They are inorganic
and don’t deteriorate in the extreme temperatures of the desert.” And
since these structures are relatively maintenance-free, the seven
Alexander houses in a north Palm Springs enclave are as pristine today
as they were almost 50 years ago.
Wexler and Harrison’s 1957 Leff Residence.
A full-scale sectional steel model in the exhibition, along with a
video, gives visitors the experience of inhabiting a Wexler-designed
house. Wexler, who moved to Palm Springs in 1952 after a stint in
Richard Neutra’s Los Angeles office, recalls that “there was a
collective sense that we could do anything; we could accomplish
anything; we could experiment.” While he chose to keep his office small
and limited his practice to the desert community, Wexler produced an
astounding body of work that included houses, schools, hotels, banks and
the Palm Springs International Airport. And he hasn’t stopped yet.
“Hamptons Modern,” currently under construction, brings California
modernism to the East End of Long Island. Marnie McBryde, a developer,
has plans to build up to 50 Wexler-designed houses, which are deft
adaptations of the 1964 Palm Springs house he designed for Dinah Shore,
throughout the Hamptons.“Steel and Shade: The Architecture of Donald Wexler” is
co-curated by Lauren Weiss Bricker, a professor of architecture at
CalPoly Pomona, which houses Wexler’s archive, and Sidney Williams, the
curator of architecture and design at the museum, and is on view through