Remembering Donald Wexler, the Inventor of Palm Springs Modernism

Katherine Wisniewski
Wednesday, July 1, 2015 - curbed.com


Architect Donald Wexler (left) with a client.

Although Donald Wexler was raised and educated in Minneapolis, he probably wouldn't want you to know that. It was at the behest of bon vivant socialite William Cody that Wexler begrudgingly decamped to the Coachella Valley for a six-month assignment building the Tamarisk Country Club. And, before long, he was smitten. In his eyes, the long, inhospitable stretches of California's desert were an irresistible challenge. His architecture-low-hanging eaves, folded-steel roofs, experiments in prefabrication-emerged from the desert nonchalantly and organically. Before his death last Friday, June 26, at the age of 89, Wexler was amused by his idolization. He was astonished when real estate advertorials bandied about "Wexler-like" as an adjective, refusing to brag when his ad-hoc architectural innovations became a de rigueur building style, and whenever possible, attributed his success to others.

After a short stint in Richard Nuetra's Los Angeles office, Donald Wexler found the Coachella Valley refreshingly empty. In a recent interview he recalls that, "It was a very small community when I came here, maybe 7,000 people. It closed down for four months in the summer - there was nothing here. There were no doctors, no dentists. The first year there was one restaurant open." Unsurprisingly, that first year wasn't easy: The celebrity clientele was demanding, the climate harsh, and first year earnings were a meager $5,500.


Photo via Wikipedia

In 1958, structural engineer Bernard Perlin approached Wexler with a proposition: Design 38 flat-roofed all-steel homes at the periphery of Palm Springs for developers George and Robert Alexander. Perlin recalls, "I came by with as big a sample of a wall system as I could carry." Wexler, who up until this point had been toiling in architectural odd-jobs, said yes. A laundry-list of midcentury greats-Raphael Soriano, Charles and Ray Eames, Craig Ellwood, Pierre Koenig, and A. Quincy Jones-had already tried, and failed, to harness steel's potential for mass-production.

Wexler, though, was different. Rather than incorporating the steel into the already existing structure, he made it the entire structure. Wexler's houses-easily replicable, slim, and gorgeously functional-were an obvious antidote to what ailed postwar housing. Even today, the seven Alexander homes possess a cult-like following with Palm Springs modernism devotees. Pierre Koenig, a lifelong collaborator of Wexler, recalls in a recent interview, "Steel is not something you can take up and put down." Later Wexler added, "The seven steel houses, they'll never come down," he says. "Someone will have to bulldoze them or they'll be there forever."

Throughout his career, Donald Wexler remained firm on one point-He refused labels. The late architect famously said, "We didn't even think of it as 'Modern' in terms of architecture for the desert. We did it to live with the environment, a matter of balancing orientation and views." Adamantly against being described as Midcentury Modern or of the International Style, Donald Wexler preferred to let his work speak for itself. Below, his ten most iconic works do just that.