Reflections on Modernism

Architect William Krisel designed acclaimed single-family houses in Palm Springs, including the butterfly-roof residence shown here.

Credit: Thomas Alleman

Palm Springs, Calif., was a thriving winter retreat for Hollywood stars when Los Angeles architect William Krisel arrived in the 1950s. But Krisel wasn't interested in building lavish vacation homes for the rich. He wanted to make fine Modernist design available to ­everyone, and with developer Bob Alexander, he designed more than 2,600 affordable post-and-beam single-family houses. Now, Krisel's work is enjoying a significant revival, with baby boomers flocking to Palm Springs and restoring his houses to their original beauty. Preservation caught up with Krisel, 84, a few days after the ­architect received a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars.

Why do you think there has been such resurgent interest among ­Californians in your work?

Quite a few of these homeowners grew up in the 1950s, and they remember it as a fun time. They've said, "I was raised in one of your houses in Los Angeles. And when I came to Palm Springs and saw one of your houses for sale, that's what I wanted, because that's what I grew up in."

What's it like to see your Palm Springs tract homes today?

I've been pleased because more and more people are doing restorations, and doing them in a true sense: by trying to return my houses to their original condition. That's very, very encouraging to me. 

How were your designs influenced by Palm Springs' desert setting and the nearby San Jacinto Mountains?

An ordinary, traditional box house or Spanish house just ­didn't capture all the beauty of the mountains, the beauty one was entitled to. My designs, with their open-gabled glass, and clerestory glass, meant that you could be indoors, have privacy, and look out and see the mountains or treetops. That's the thing that people today are amazed by. It opens up a whole new dimension to them.

What project are you most proud of?

Well, I'd have to say it's my own home in Los Angeles. It's ­really the granddaddy of all my tract houses. It's 55 years old, a post-and-beam house. There's nothing but sliding glass doors everywhere. For many years, we didn't even have a ­single drape or blind. We have a great view of the whole city and Catalina Island. The house is in its original state—true 1950s—and we love it.

Do you consider yourself a preservationist?

I do. I've had many of my jobs and projects destroyed and replaced with so-called bigger and better projects. Some people think that if the building on a site isn't used to maximum advantage, it's time to tear it down. I think there are things in architecture worth saving. Good architecture really explains the history of an era.

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