Architectural acolytes seeking a temple to modernism usually head for Scandinavia but they may now want to go west, too. In the California desert, an old bank has been reborn as an oasis of mid-century style and host to a cultural revival.
“The Palm Springs Architecture and Design Center started as all great things do: a dream that nobody thought possible,” says JR Roberts, who managed the opening of his city’s newest museum, which opened late last year. “Palm Springs is finally emerging into the arts and cultural centre it was always meant to be.”
The space was designed in 1961 as the Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan bank by architect E Stewart Williams; the building is pure mid-century. Low slung with overhanging eaves, indoor-outdoor appeal and steel-and-glass bones, it was built to cope with the harsh climate without sacrificing views out to the San Jacinto Mountains. It opened with a retrospective honouring its architect, a testament to how this oasis in the desert is investing in its design legacy.
In addition to its role as a resource centre, the museum will host architectural tours as well as events for Modernism Week in February. The permanent collections will rotate on display alongside temporary and visiting exhibitions.
Marmol Radziner, the architecture firm that spearheaded the redevelopment, used Williams’ plans – along with photographs by chronicler of mid-century architecture Julius Shulman – to honour the building’s past while also refreshing it. “Preservation is not about fighting change,” says co-founder Leo Marmol. The challenge, he adds, was maintaining a modernist feel while “balancing the nature of a glass pavilion with the curatorial demands of light sensitivity” required to exhibit and store art. Bronze-anodised aluminium screens provide shade without sacrificing the view, their angled open-lattice design diffusing sunlight while their dark, metallic colour reduces glare. Inside, solar screens control light into the gallery while the concrete-block walls and terrazzo floor have been conserved.
“The conversion of the old bank was a seamless transition,” says Marmol. “It didn’t require aggressive intervention as the floorplan provided enough space for the gallery and enough support space to house the functions of the museum.” Williams’ daughter-in-law Sidney, the museum’s curator, describes the architect as “a very modest man” who would have been overwhelmed by the attention. The sentiment is echoed by Marmol, who sees Williams’ contributions to the city as invaluable. “He was,” he says, “a very dignified, respectful gentleman – a modest modernist.”