A Solo Architectural Adventure

I’ve been shivering like a hairless dog for the past few weeks. Why? Because I was in Palm Springs for Modernism Week. And it was miraculous weather. Well, miraculous in that it wasn’t winter in Vancouver—cold, wet and gray for as long as the eye dared to look out from under an umbrella. It was luxuriously sunny with a high of sandals all day and a low of thin sundress at night. For those darling loyal readers, you may remember I went to Palm Spring last year and fell in love. With the topography and architecture—there is a dearth of mature-ish heterosexual available men, so nevermind, I wasn’t there for that.

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During that trip I went on an incredible architectural tour of Palm Springs that was helmed by a masterful storyteller who had an encyclopedic knowledge of mid-century architecture and I was transfixed by his telling and obvious love of the design ethos the early visionaries had when they descended in Palm Springs in the 30’s and 40’s.  It was during that tour I heard a few architects talking about Modernism Week and decided there and then I’d go back and so I did.

Once again I stayed at the Movie Colony hotel which is an architectural gem itself. Initially built by Albert Frey, an architect whose designs saturate the landscape of Palm Springs with over 200 buildings, the small boutique hotel has a certain faded glamour about it that I really adore. For a solo traveler, Frey’s design suits me quite well as there is an intimate courtyard area where everyone gathers for a continental breakfast outdoors, reads their paper, pours coffee, talks about the horrible weather they just came from and likewise at 5:30 pm on the dot everyone comes back and gathers for free martinis and California wine and yaks about their day. It just so happened there were very interesting people there including a group of friends who’d known one another since college and were having a hooray-to-the-west trip together. An invitation ensued and David and Dan, Mike and Mark and I all went out one night to a restaurant that had a lot of buzz but we were all kind of disappointed. I was impressed with the copywriting of the menu however, as it really upsold the food in a creative way. Gravy was described as ‘huntsman’s jus’. I thought that was very clever. Another night I went out with Deb and Tim from Michigan, perhaps the nicest people I’ve ever met, to a night market that seemed to stretch the entire length of the San Jacinto mountains. Truly remarkable and entertaining experience I highly recommend if you are in Palm Springs on a Thursday night. There is nothing not being sold at this market, trust me.

The fact is, Palm Springs is the warmest city I’ve every visited and I’m not talking desert climate. For the first few days I was shocked when people warmly greeted me on the street and said hello. I looked over my shoulder, sure they were speaking to a friend that happened to be walking behind me but no, it was me and I responded, a beat too late, appearing suspicious and well, probably like a Vancouverite. Vancouver is well-known as a cold city, a city that doesn’t say ‘hello’ to strangers on the street, a city that has increasingly become about development—sadly, at the cost of its heritage and many neighbourhoods that were once bustling communities of unique personality and spirit.

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I tried to balance the week with a mix of sun, walking, swimming, tours, reading and lectures. I wanted a true holiday and not one where I was running around trying to find the next tour bus. This is the blessing of solo travel—you have only yourself and your own agenda to live by and if you can be confident enough to sit with five or six couples all talking about their adventures and happily talk about your own then you are likely a good candidate for solo travel. There’s no room for self-pity in solo travel—you have to live each day how you want and not give a whit what anyone thinks.

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One of the highlights of the week was visiting Albert Frey’s house high up the mountain overlooking the city and surrounding San Jacinto mountains. It’s said he liked to hang about nude and put a cow bell at the entrance so folks could alert him should they make their way up to his aerie in the mountains. The house just makes you weep with the elemental design of it, the ideal of desert life distilled down into this architectural gem and it whetted an appetite in me to one day build my own writing retreat in the desert region of Osoyoos.

Lectures on architects and design were held daily at the Palm Springs Art Museum, which is a gem in and of itself. I was very impressed with the collection for a city this size. I really loved learning about designer cum architect Walter S. White who designed affordable small concrete houses throughout the Coachella Valley for ‘real people’. His use of soaring curved roofs with floor to ceiling glass windows in his Alexander House are stunning.

The entire aesthetic of mid-century architecture inspires me in a way that makes me want to build. The low horizontal profiles, the exterior designed for intense privacy, happy breeze ways, patterned concrete, gobs of light, interior transparency, with a respectful relationship to the environment, in particular, the desert sun—all this design thinking continually delights me and I hope I can one day replicate some of it for myself.

 

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Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate

 

At the beginning of the week, as I sat in the airport fussing about whether my son would remember to feed the cat, another voice interrupted me and said, in a calm and adult-like voice: Just live the hell out of this week. Forget work. Forget the sore knee, dry eyes and achy neck. Forget about dishes and cat hair on the pillows and the weird niggling sound when the car is in reverse. Just live.

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And I did. I really lived the hell out of Modernism Week and I’ll do it again next year.

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