Albert Frey was a Swiss-born architect who established a style of modernist architecture centered on Palm Springs, California, United States, that came to be known as “desert modernism”. Even if you’re not familiar with the term, you’ve probably seen the aesthetic. Join me in learning about Albert Frey, and some of his most spectacular designs.
Few architects master a style so perfectly as Albert Frey did. His simple yet beautiful approach to Desert Modernism captivated the architectural community and transformed the Coachella Valley. But Frey’s life was much more than a few homes in Palm Springs– he left behind a legacy that spanned continents and countries.He worked under architect Le Corbusier, who was also his inspiration. Frey’s designs were simple yet beautiful. He had great concern for nature and surroundings. His buildings seamlessly merged with the surroundings, like they have been in harmony since the beginning of the time. He partnered with local architects, Robson Chambers and A. Lawrence Kocher in various projects. Frey’s style of architecture was marked by its sleek lines, earthy colors, and outside-inside design. Most of his designs have survived the harsh weather conditions of the desert and define the legacy of Frey. He gave a new dimension to the architecture of Palm Springs with his imagination and design.
Albert Frey’s Life and Career
Born in Zurich, Switzerland, Frey received his architecture diploma in 1924 from the Technikum engineering school in Winterthur, Switzerland. There Frey trained in traditional building construction and received technical instruction rather than design instruction in the then popular Beaux-Arts style. Prior to receiving his diploma, Frey apprenticed with the architect A. J. Arter in Zurich and worked in construction during his school vacations. It was also around this time that Frey became aware of the Dutch De Stijl movement, the German Bauhaus school and movement, and the modernism movement developing in Brussels. All would prove to be significant influences to Frey’s later work.
From 1924 through 1928, Frey worked on various architectural projects in Belgium. In 1928, Frey secured a position in the Paris atelier of the noted International Style architect Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. Frey was one of two full-time employees of the atelier and coworkers included Josep Lluís Sert, Kunio Maekawa, and Charlotte Perriand. During his period of working for Le Corbusier, Frey worked on the Villa Savoye project and other significant projects. In 1928, Frey left the atelier to take up work in the United States, but continued to maintain a friendship with Le Corbusier for many years.
In September, 1930, Frey returned to New York from another visit to France. Frey, the first architect in America to have worked directly with Le Corbusier, now began working with the American architect A. Lawrence Kocher who was also the managing editor of Architectural Record. Their collaboration would last until 1935, and they would reunite for a brief collaboration again in 1938. Although only four buildings were built by the pair, they contributed significantly to the American modernist movement through their numerous articles published in Architectural Record on urban planning, the modernist aesthetic, and technology. One collaboration was the 1931 Aluminaire House, designed for an exhibition, and later sold to New York architect Wallace K. Harrison for $1000. Harrison used it as a guest house on his Long Island property for years. Another of their commissions was an office/apartment dual-use building for Kocher’s brother, Dr. J. J. Kocher of Palm Springs. This project introduced Frey to the California desert, which was to become his home and the backdrop for most of his subsequent work.
From 1935 to 1937, Frey worked with John Porter Clark (1905–1991), a Cornell-educated architect, under the firm name of Van Pelt and Lind Architects as both were yet unlicensed in California. In 1937, Frey briefly returned to the east coast to work on the Museum of Modern Art in New York. While in New York, Frey married Marion Cook, a writer he had met in Palm Springs. In 1938, Frey and his wife went to France and returned to America on the Normandie, a floating art deco masterpiece. Upon completion of his work on the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, Frey and Marion returned to California to resume his collaboration with Clark, which would continue for nearly twenty more years. Frey and Marion divorced in 1945 and neither remarried.
At the end of World War II Palm Springs’ population almost tripled, and the city experienced a building boom. Known as an escape for the Hollywood elite and a winter haven for east coast industrialists, Palm Springs emerged post-war as a resort community for a broader segment of the American populace with more leisure time than any previous generation. Frey and Clark were well positioned to capitalize on this, and both the city and their firm benefited from an unprecedented period of construction.
After some consideration, a shopping center at the corner of Sunrise Way and Ramon Road in Palm Springs that bore a Frey-designed façade was demolished and replaced with an entirely new center that incorporates architectural touches in Frey’s style. Newly designed structures along Palm Canyon Drive are now being fitted with Frey-styled accents, including butterfly rooflines, glass walls, rock facings and exposed ceilings. Frey’s buildings helped establish Palm Springs as a progressive desert mecca for innovative modern architecture during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. He produced designs for the spectrum of architectural commissions, from bespoke custom homes to institutional and public buildings, most of which are still in use today.
In comparison with his contemporary and fellow European transplant, Richard Neutra, Frey’s designs are more integrated into the surrounding landscape and draw from the local surroundings for color and metaphor. In contrast to Neutra, Frey’s designs are more commercial and less philosophically dogmatic, and hence more accessible. By embracing the American idiom while incorporating the modernist philosophy influenced by Le Corbusier, Frey produced a new regional vernacular. In 1996, he was awarded the Neutra Award for Professional Excellence. Then, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars was dedicated to Frey in 2010.
10 of Albert Frey’s Most Spectacular Designs
1. Aluminaire House
Designed for the Architectural League of New York Exposition, this home was designed by Frey with help from A. Lawrence Kocher. It was made to be affordable and easy to reproduce, and was built in 10 days. The Aluminaire House was the first all-metal prefab home in the United States. “After working with Le Corbusier in Paris, my aim in life was to use permanent materials that don’t require maintenance. [Aluminum] was an up-and-coming material, much more durable than wood, or plaster, which cracks. And it went up very quickly,” said Frey to The New York Times in 1998. Aluminaire caught the attention of the public so much that in just one week on exhibit, more than 100,000 visitors toured the home.
Aluminaire House is considered a masterpiece of modernist design, recently listed by Architectural Record as one of the most important buildings completed worldwide in the past 125 years. New York architects Michael Schwarting and Frances Campani worked diligently for more than 25 years to save, protect, and document Aluminaire, and formed the Aluminaire House Foundation to locate a suitable permanent home for the structure. While the interior details of Aluminaire House were rendered in sketches and described in notes, they have yet to be realized. A committee of museum curatorial staff, architects, and interior designers will be assembled to survey the pertinent archival materials and conceptualize appropriate interior detail that will complete Aluminaire’s presentation.
2. Frey House II
This home was designed to be Frey’s personal living space. At the time of its construction, it was the highest home in Palm Springs as it is (quite literally) located on the side of the San Jacinto mountain. Additionally, Frey House II is only 800 sq. feet, as Frey designed it to have as little of an impact as possible on the surrounding environment. After reviewing his plans, Palm Springs City Hall called the design “crazy” but finally gave its approval. It was the second Palm Springs house that Albert Frey designed for himself and it has become a hillside landmark. Perched part way up the San Jacinto mountain, the house looks across the expanse of the Coachella Valley.
‘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.
“I had a very careful survey made showing the contours and all the rock. Then I put up some strings to see how the design would work out. We then established the levels, and then I had to fit the glass to the rock. The slope of the roof follows the slope of the terrain, the contrast between the natural rock and the high tech materials is rather exciting.”
One of the most famous elements of the property is the incorporation of a large boulder into the design. It protrudes into the house and acts as a divider between the bedroom and living room. By incorporating the boulder in to the design, Albert Frey acknowledged our role with nature.
3. Raymond Loewy House
Built for famous industrial designer Raymond Loewy, this Palm Springs bachelor pad was designed to be jaw-dropping. The home features a dramatic curved glass pavilion that looks out onto the desert, and embodies indoor-outdoor living. But the highlight of the home is the large, illuminated pool which sits in the center of the house. Parts of it even reach into the living room, making it the perfect space for entertaining.
The Loewy House is an iconic example of Frey’s style of minimalism. Designed as a bachelor’s pad, the house best suits cocktail parties. The Loewy House is an L-shaped structure built around a pool that extends into the living area. The amoeba-shaped pool is the centerpiece of the house. The pool resembles a blue lagoon in a desert oasis with a backdrop of Rocky Mountains at the far end.
The site of the structure was quite undulating, yet the house is designed so well that even the rock and the boulders have become an integral part of the design. One of the large boulders forms the support for the sliding glass door and emerges in the living room. The house incorporates a garden, living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms, and a servant room. The rooms are small and the furnishing is simple. The house witnesses extensive use of glass, low-cost materials, corrugated metal, and concrete blocks. The semi-covered courtyard on the outside (also the landscape garden) has a steel and redwood trellis.
The house is of small and modest size but a generous effect.
4. Frey House I
Frey House 1 was built in 1940, as a small 16×20 rectangle. Frey house I was a project wherein Frey used an experimental and a minimalistic approach. He tried out numerous building and designing techniques. This house was built as a small 16ft x 20ft rectangle, with corrugated metal walls and roof, but was later on expanded to accommodate a swimming pool and a guest bedroom. In 1948, the living area was expanded, a second pool was installed that was partially indoors (surrounded by curving metal walls), as well as additions to the pool area. In 1953, an upstairs addition was constructed– based on an observation tower Frey had seen in Mexico– which contained a bedroom with 8 circular windows to let in air and light.
The Exterior façade of the house was cladded in metal, with full-length glass windows protected from the sun by overhanging flat roof extended past the walls. The dining room had a table suspended from the ceiling. The second story has a unique circular footprint with porthole windows. The walls were projected outwards to create spaces within the landscape for activities. The house was conceived as a model for future mass-manufactured housing.In the modern living concept Frey, interior and exterior are closely connected. It is purely mechanical, including cactus and tumbleweeds, amid a bleak landscape is a juxtaposition that can be both jarring and beautiful, depending on the beholder.
“I’m excited to see every day the varied spectacle of nature that is part of the house, changing with light and color, wind, rain, calm and the sun” said the architect on the house in 1948 Frey I….. “However, I think this type of housing do not fully understand until after a time, as the reaction of most people is conditioned by conventional houses where they grew up, closed to the environment”
5. Tramway Gas Station
Designed by architect Albert Frey and architect Robson Chambers, this ever buzzing gas station sits on a major highway in the Palm Springs. The huge wedge-shaped cantilever roof is the most iconic feature of the building that offers shade from the desert sun. The Tramway Gas Station is a landmark former Enco service station in Palm Springs, so named because of its location at the foot of Tramway Road, the lone road leading to the base of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. It was intended to be the first Palm Springs building visitors saw when approaching the city from the north via California State Route 111.
The station has a circular footprint with large glass windows. The hyperbolic paraboloid canopy is made in corrugated aluminum. The walls are made in stone which is a naturally available material and matches the hues of the hills in the backdrop. Other materials used are readily available industrial products such as steel and concrete blocks. These materials not only reduced the construction cost and maintenance but also added texture to the building. The station had closed by the mid-1990s, and its fate was in doubt until its purchase by a private interest, who erected a wall around the property and converted it into an art gallery. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. It is now operated by the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism as the Palm Springs Visitor Center.
6. Kocher Canvas Weekend House
Like the ‘Aluminaire House’ built in 1931, this house was also experimentation in low-cost building materials. Kocher was the managing editor of Architectural Record, faculty at the University of Virginia and Black Mountain College, and responsible for helping bring Walter Gropius to the United States. With this weekend house on Long Island, Kocher and Frey designed the house. The two-story built structure rested on steel columns. All the floors could be accessed by a circular metal staircase. The ground floor was used as a car park and outdoor play area. The main floor had a living room, kitchen, and bedroom, while the terrace was reserved for relaxation and lounging activities.
The house was built in a redwood frame covered in cotton canvas, sealed against the weather; the large windows were protected with sloping metal overhangs. The flooring was in sealed canvas and the partition was done with plywood panels. Sadly, the house was demolished in the 1950s to make way for a new subdivision.
7. Palm Springs City Hall
The Palm Spring city hall building is very simple and seamlessly integrates into the surrounding terrain. The large canopy at the entrance foyer has a circular void in the roof, to make space for three tall palm trees to grow up through it. The landscape around the building includes trees and grassy lawns with flower beds along the walkway. The second entrance has a circular canopy as if it is cut out of the first entrance canopy. Both the canopies are built-in corrugated aluminium and painted aqua white.
The exterior façade is plain in a light taupe hue the semi-enclosed courtyard are partially covered with aluminum Sheets and pergolas, which shade the building from the strong sunlight and also act as buffer spaces. He designed a massive portico that’s punctured by a huge circular hole, through which a trio of graceful palms grow. If you’re wondering where the “hole” went, look for the building’s alternate entrance, where a circular ramada is held up by four poles. Another of Frey’s futuristic design elements is the building’s front screen wall made from aluminum tubing, which was cut at angles and stacked in columns to block the desert’s intense morning and early afternoon sun. These industrial-chic sun shields or “brise soleil” walls, which could be made of either metal or brick, became a popular design feature that is found on thousands of buildings and homes in Southern California. Their functionality is simple—deflecting sunlight reduces heat gain—but they provide an aesthetic bonus: As the sun moves throughout the day, the cut-out walls cast changing shadow patterns, enhancing the building’s architectural value. The structure’s entrance areas are painted aqua blue to resemble the sky, which deters birds from building nests underneath the porticos. Colonnades around the perimeter create partially covered walkways that lead to grassy lawns and mature olive trees, making the building seem more like a golf course clubhouse than a civic office.
8. The Monkey Tree Hotel
A mid-century modern hotel with a vibrant twist, Monkey Tree provides a refreshing escape for those retreating to Palm Springs. Fun, not loud. Private, not isolated. Colorful, not chaotic. This creation is a beautiful congruence of nature and architecture and gives a cozy feel to the residents. The building is a single-story structure operating as a boutique hotel is nestled against the backdrop of the gorgeous San Jacinto Mountains. The 16 rooms with a slanting roof is designed overlooking a central swimming pool. Each room has a private open to sky bathroom, enclosed by stone walls.
The structure is built in metal and is painted white; the flooring is in concrete while the exterior walls are in stone. The amalgamation of the blue pool, yellow umbrellas, yellow walls, and lush green grass make this hotel perfect for weekend getaways. The interiors are of the Scandinavian theme with a touch of white, blue, and yellow. With views of the San Jacinto Mountains, the low to the ground structure perfectly allows the natural environment to shine. The Monkey Tree Hotel opened back in 1960, its original rack rate card was designed with the classic midcentury color combination of yellow and teal.Through the years, it was a gay clothing-optional resort, a hangout for musicians, like Eric Clapton, and also one of the few confirmed hook-up spots for a Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy rendezvous. The couple spent some adult time together while the president’s secret service detail waited outside of the room. In 2016, it shed its nudist and star-studded past to emerge as a stylish boutique hotel with all the modern amenities you would want in a historic package.
And though it has had numerous names through the decades, like the Legacy and Terra Cotta Inn, it now has its original name once again – The Monkey Tree Hotel. The new owners, a couple from Brooklyn, have even brought back the original color scheme – cheery yellow and white. The rooms are a welcoming mix of retro and contemporary.
9. Kocher-Samson Building
Designed by architect Albert Frey and architect A. Lawrence Kocher, the Kocher-Samson Building was Palm Spring’s first modernist international style building. It was designed to accommodate offices on the ground and first floor, and a small apartment on the second floor. The concept of mass and void was used in various spaces. The commercial space consisted of two offices located on either side of an external corridor. A spiral staircase led from the upper floors. A large living terrace was projected on the north side of the living room. The house has a flat roof, plain glass windows in steel frame and stucco finish. The partition walls could be slid to divide the interior spaces into various rooms. The interior atrium which had a spiral staircase was also a beautiful light well.
On July 11, 2012 the Palm Springs city council unanimously approved the Class 1 historic site designation of the Kocher-Samson Building. During public comment PSPF board member Erik Rosenow opined that “the historic designation of this important modernist building is arguably long overdue,” a sentiment later echoed by a city council member.
10. Cree House II
The Cree House is a simple, single-story two-bedroom structure. This 1124 sq.ft. house sits on an 8.2-acre hillside. The house is supported by thin steel columns, called pilotis, and appears to float over the rugged mountain backdrop. A spacious 600 sq.ft. deck, covered with yellow fiberglass siding, perfectly contrasts with the Encelia-green asbestos cement sheet on the façade. Built on the rocky desert, this house has large sliding glass doors and windows which provide ample panoramic views of nature around. The interior of the house is vintage and reflects a successful attempt of the inside-outside concept. The fireplace in the living room features a native rock plucked from the site, which also exhibits the wise use of vernacular materials. The Cree House brings a sense of the surroundings inside the home.
Also commonly known as “the Forgotten Frey,” the midcentury time capsule in California’s Coachella Valley recently underwent a careful renovation and restoration. Raymond Cree, a former school superintendent turned real estate developer, commissioned Frey to design the single-story structure on the border between Palm Springs and Cathedral City in California’s Coachella Valley. The Cree House’s design bears similarities to the architect’s own residence, Frey House II. It also recalls details from Frey’s training under Le Corbusier and his work on the iconic Villa Savoye.
In a career that spanned more than 65 years, Mr. Frey remained true to the principle that architecture should make the most of the least. His best known works were the East Coast houses he designed with Lawrence Kocher in the 1930’s and the many buildings he created in the Palm Springs of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. ‘He was the last of a generation of European architects that came to the West Coast envisioning that, in this unformed landscape, a perfected vision of a modern future could bloom,” said Terence Riley, chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. His buildings are understated, keeping a low profile in the spectacular environment. They are generally quite compact as well, yet manage to create a sense of luxury and beauty through their attention to detail. The outdoor built in benches nestled into the side of the building, the detailed brickwork used as sun protection: this approach to design is what makes Albert Frey’s legacy so enduring.