Travel: Palm Springs, California

When Hollywood’s Rat Pack moved to Palm Springs in the 1940s, architects followed and the result is a legacy of fine design

Tthe two poodle puppies, feet and pony tails dyed pink, looked startled as a yellow double-decker trundled by. The open-topped bus was packed with modern architecture enthusiasts enjoying a tour of Palm Springs’ beautiful post war buildings. Within seconds, the architecture buffs had taken their eyes off an angular 1950s bank building and were pointing their cameras at the diminutive show stoppers. Their owner, a guy with ripped abs popping from under a tight T-shirt obligingly picked one up and with a dazzling Californian smile waved the puppy’s paw at the bus. Palm Springs’ legendary camp credentials will never be upstaged by fine architecture.

For ten days each February, Palm Springs’ sleepy community of retired snowbirds is disturbed by Modernism Week, a celebration of the light, airy Desert Modernism style that has epitomised the town since the Hollywood Rat Pack, attracted by the sublime climate and close proximity to Los Angeles, settled here in the 1940s. Hot on their moneyed heels, architects and designers flooded into town and quickly fell in love with the dramatic desert landscapes and outdoor Californian lifestyle. By the 1950s, they’d perfected an architectural style that seamlessly fuses indoor and outdoor living characterised by expansive glass walls, experimental materials and floating, angular roofs. The style speaks of the optimism of post-war USA and today’s soul-searching Americans can’t get enough of this retro feel-good factor. The festival’s misnomer amply demonstrates this. From humble beginnings seven years ago, Modernism Week has become one of America’s most popular arts festivals and now spans a full ten days. More than 80 events celebrate all aspects of modern architecture, art and design.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

As a Grand Designs fan, I was in for a real treat. Palm Springs residents are immensely proud of their architectural heritage and many open their doors to the public during Modernism Week. On my first morning I was eager to see some of these iconic homes but hadn’t bargained on the jet lag. It was 5:30am and I was wide awake, sipping a coffee, and watching the first streaks of dawn glimmer over the mountain tops. With hours to kill before the first of the day’s events, I decided to take an early morning walk around Las Palmas, a leafy residential neighbourhood renowned for its classic mid-century desert modernism homes. Groves of spindly desert palms, alive with warbling songbirds, were swaying in the breeze framed by a backdrop of crumpled snow-dusted mountains glowing pink in the morning sunlight. I could fully understand why architects would want to maximise these inspirational views.

It was the wildlife, however, and not the architecture, that caught my eye. Walking down a deserted road I was startled by a colony of desert rabbits leaping around in the verges. Shortly afterwards I spotted a pair of Californian ground squirrels basking on rocks in the warm sunshine. In more of a hurry, a roadrunner suddenly darted out from behind the rocks. Seeing me, he stopped in his tracks, cocked his crested head to one side before scurrying off.

On the hillside above Las Palmas, Little Tuscany is Palm Springs’ answer to Beverly Hills and is dotted with Desert Modernist masterpieces. It was here that Max Palevsky, one of the original computer whizz kids, commissioned the self-taught architect Craig Ellwood to build a winter hideaway in 1967.

A pioneer of digital computing, Palevsky was 40 years ahead of his time and his visionary qualities can be seen in this house. With its austere white oblong walls, cavernous open-plan rooms and floor-to-ceiling glass walls, the property would look perfectly at home in the latest edition of Wallpaper.

Inside, a couple of photographers for German Vogue looked exasperated as visitors glided around in pale-blue protective booties, ruining their shots. An Andy Warhol Marilyn and Roy Lichtenstein cartoon were scant reminders of a once vast collection of modern art that was auctioned after Palevsky’s death in 2010.

I was entranced by a telescope pointing skywards from the living room. Palm Springs’ clear skies are perfect for stargazing and only last night I’d seen a spectacular alignment of luminescent planets hovering above the mountains. I could well imagine Max sipping martinis by the pool and counting the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

The next day, I entered a whole new league of wealth at Sunnylands, the winter home of Walter Annenberg, a billionaire publisher and ambassador to Britain during the 1970s. This Aztec-inspired mansion with its striking pink roof contains a treasure trove of priceless art and is a roll call of modern history. The Annenbergs were legendary hosts and during their lifetime welcomed seven US presidents and numerous heads of state to their 200-acre estate. In the Room of Memories, nostalgia tugged at me, unexpectedly, by a wall of Christmas cards from a beaming Queen Mother. Later on, I chuckled at a photo of Walter’s wife Leonore and the Queen, clashing horribly in powder-pink jackets.

Sunnylands has recently opened as a conference centre dedicated to world peace and the guest rooms have been restored to Leonore’s exacting standards. Even her habit of placing colour- coordinated jelly beans in bowls has been maintained.

My last port of call was Frey House 2, home of Palm Springs’ most revered architect Albert Frey. A keen nature lover and yoga enthusiast, Frey built a house for himself 200ft up a mountainside overlooking Palm Springs. Here he could be close to the desert he loved, and the whole structure pivots around a giant natural boulder in the bedroom. The rest of the house is a mere scratch in the mountainside consisting of a gently tilting aluminium roof balanced daintily on sliding glass walls. It was dusk when I visited and I wandered down to the swimming pool. In the fading light I sat down to watch bats swooping overhead and skimming the surface of the water. By the pool, Frey had scooped out a hollow in a stone for lizards to drink from. Of all the beautiful houses I’d visited, this modest bachelor pad was my dream home and for anybody with a similar love of modern architecture and design, inspiration is never far away in Palm Springs.

• THE FACTS

Kuoni (01306 747008, www.kuoni.co.uk) offers seven nights room-only at the three-star Travelodge, Palm Springs, including return economy flights from Heathrow to Palm Springs. Prices for June are from £1,066 per person based on two sharing. The 8th annual Palm Springs Modernism Week runs from 14-24 February 2013.