PS Modernism Week: Frey House II

I hardly know how to approach my description of the house I toured today. Swiss-born architect Albert Frey’s second and final personal residence in Palm Springs, built in 1963-64, is a mere 800 square feet not counting the guest room that he added later. Yet that seemingly small space is expansive, peaceful, and perfect. If the Elrod House is spectacle and Park Imperial South is extraordinary livability, then Frey House II is minimalistic poetry. It’s a modern-day Thoreau-meets-Heidegger expression of earth meeting sky, stripped to basics, wide open to the world yet completely of it and secure within it.

I could bombard you with photos (I took 46), but it’s easy enough to find “better” photos than mine online. So I’ll try to share just a few images below that I hope will convey the feeling of the place and the emotions that it invoked in me.

Frey chose a building site that most people would have considered unbuildable, high up on the steep face of the mountains that rise almost vertically out of the desert floor. He spent a year visiting the site, measuring the angle of the sun at all seasons of the year, all hours of the day, before begining to draw plans that would allow the sun to enter and warm the house from a low angle in the winter while blocking direct sunlight during the warm months.

He designed the house around the massive boulders on the site. If you read my blog on the Elrod House (or if you know that house), you’ll recall that boulders are incorporated into that design as well. The difference is that in the 8,901 square foot Elrod House a massive boulder is a design feature, whereas in the 800 square foot Frey House II the boulders are nearly as large as the house itself. The Elrod House encloses boulders; Frey House II dances with them.

The building materials are simple, functional, industrial, and beautiful in juxtaposition to the boulders and the sky: steel framing, glass and concrete block walls, ribbed aluminum siding and roof, perforated corrugated aluminum sheets on the ceiling, mahogany veneer cabinetry, and oh-so-60s aqua Formica countertops.

What I loved the most was the ingenious use of space — layered usages of space within a small area. Think about the inside of a modest yacht or an Airstream trailer, and you’ve got the picture. Compact, minimal spaces with maximal functionality. Everything is built-in: cabinetry, seating, a dual-purpose working/dining table (complete with built-in pencil sharpener), a bed, a wall clock. So you have this perfectly human-scaled interior wrapped around a massive boulder that doubles as the “wall” between the living and sleeping area. And then you have walls of glass that open on three sides and look out over the entire valley and across the mountainside.

Frey House II makes me want to liberate myself from all that “stuff” that I own and live in a small space… if only I could find a site anywhere that begins to approach the grandeur of this one.

Albert Frey died in 1998 and left the house and all its contents to the Palm Springs Art Museum. The objects shown in these photos are the real deal; the house today is a living memorial to the genius of its architect and a tribute to the art of living in the desert that he loved.

Beginning with the carport, the house hugs and walks up the side of the mountain. I don’t know whose Boxster that is, but I think Frey would have appreciated the clean simplicity of its design:

The carport wall curves around at the valley end…

To accommodate the pool that sits atop the carport:

The main living area:

Looking back from the sleeping area, through the living room toward the kitchen (left) and bathroom (center):

If you look closely, you can see how the boulder was chiseled out (and then replaced) to install the light switch. It was also chiseled out to perfectly fit the window that bisects the boulder:

Everything is built in — even the record player (remember those?):

The aluminum ceiling is a beautiful blue-turquoise that echos  the sky:

Dishes are neatly tucked away in the galley kitchen:

I love the step-down seating off the sleeping area. Frey used to sit out here in the mornings, often (it is said) in minimal clothing, and talk to the birds:

As close to nature as the site is, it is in fact directly in line with Tahquitz Canyon Way (a main street in town). In the distance you can see the airport terminal:

Yet even though all that is down there, the boulders right here are what define, shape, and ultimately create the grace and magic that happens in this place:

I am humbled and honored to have experienced this place.

Finally, for those who may be wondering what happened to this blog about grieving and running and recreating my life: I did my first post-race run this morning, and it was a 3.36 mile slow happy romp. And… I have just four more days to work before I say goodbye to corporate life.

Posted on February 20, 2012, in Architecture, Nature, Place and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Love the way the rock is used as a feature.

  2. The first photo doesn’t appeal to me at all, but all of the others make up for it. I agree with Clareville.

    I need to find photos of the Cancer Society of the Bahamas. The architecture is quite nice, and it was built AROUND the trees. How amazing is that?

  3. It’s a spectacular use of little space. Wish I could condense my house like that. You are seeing some wonderful designs of homes in the area, Lori.

  4. Back in the mid ’70s, we found a little house up a hillside in Laguna Cyn built with two walls of boulders. It was maybe 200 sq. ft. built as an interim space while the guy built his real house. I could find it into the 1980s, but not since. Small and simple certainly has its appeal. I can maybe imagine you with a refurbished 60s airstream, or even an egg shaped 50s model, though the combo with the Porsche’s a bit incongruous.

  5. This home, too, is just wonderful! I can see how it would make you think about simplifying the “stuff” of life…I could use a little boost in that direction, too. The wrapping around the boulders is just incredible and like nothing I’ve ever seen. Thanks, too, for the info on how early you had to get these tickets. I have made a note on that. Glad your corporate clock is winding down! That’s a hearty congratulations! Debra

  6. Debra,

    I think this level of minimalism is an ideal to aspire to. When I consider all the stuff I’d have to get rid of (not just here in PS but at home in Washington as well) I do find myself wanting to cling to many things. I suspect that, just like everything else, getting rid of stuff will be a “one step at a time” process.

    I’m glad you found the ticket ordering info useful. The first winter that Kurt and I were here, we didn’t know that the Modernism Week tours sell out early, and we weren’t able to do any of them. We did, however, enjoy several films, lectures, and the expo at the convention center.


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