Albert Frey (1903 – 1998) and Desert Modernism

Albert Free House in Palm Springs
Albert Free House in Palm Springs

Albert Frey (1903 – 1998) was a Swiss-born architect who founded “desert modernism” as a modernist architecture centred on Palm Springs, California, in the United States.

Early Years

Frey was born in Zurich, Switzerland, and obtained his architecture diploma from the Winterthur Institute of Technology in 1924. Frey got technical training in traditional building construction rather than design education in the then-popular Beaux-Arts style. Frey worked in construction during his school vacations and apprenticed with architect A. J. Arter in Zurich before getting his diploma.

Frey also became aware of the Dutch De Stijl movement, the German Bauhaus school and movement, and the emerging modernist movement in Brussels about this period. All of these artists would have a significant influence on Frey’s later work.

Frey worked on different architectural projects in Belgium from 1924 through 1928. Frey landed a job at the Paris atelier of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, the renowned International Style architects. Frey was one of the atelier’s two full-time employees, alongside Josep Lluis Sert, Kunio Maekawa, and Charlotte Perriand. Frey worked on the Villa Savoye project and other notable projects for Le Corbusier during his time with him. Frey left the atelier in 1928 to pursue work in the United States. Still, he remained friends with Le Corbusier for many years.

Albert Free House in Palm Springs
Albert Free House in Palm Springs

American Years

Frey returned to New York in September 1930 after another trip to France. Frey, the first American architect to work directly with Le Corbusier, began collaborating with A. Lawrence Kocher, the managing editor of Architectural Record at the time. Their collaboration lasted until 1935, after which they reunited for a brief reunion in 1938.

Even though the couple only completed four structures, their numerous writings on urban planning, the modernist aesthetic, and technology published in Architectural Record contributed considerably to the American modernist movement. The Aluminaire House, built for an exhibition in 1931 and later sold for $1000 to New York architect Wallace K. Harrison, was one of their collaborations. For years, Harrison used it as a guest house on his Long Island estate. A dual-use office/apartment building for Kocher’s brother, Dr J. J. Kocher of Palm Springs was another of their projects. This endeavour exposed Frey to the California desert, which would become his home and the setting for most of his later work.

Frey collaborated with John Porter Clark (1905–1991), a Cornell-educated architect named Van Pelt and Lind Architects from 1935 to 1937. Both were still unlicensed in California. Frey returned to the east coast for a brief period in 1937 to work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Frey married Marion Cook, a writer he met in Palm Springs, while in New York. Frey and his wife visited France in 1938. They returned to the United States on the Normandie, a floating art deco masterpiece.

Frey and Marion returned to California after finishing work on the Museum of Modern Art in 1939 to restart their partnership with Clark, lasting nearly two decades. In 1945, Frey and Marion divorced, and neither of them remarried.

Palm Springs’ population nearly tripled after WWII, and the city enjoyed a construction boom. Palm Springs emerged post-war as a resort community for a broader American populace with more leisure time than any previous generation. Known as an escape for the Hollywood elite and a winter haven for east coast industrialists, Palm Springs emerged 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. Both the city and their firm benefited from an unprecedented construction period. Significant buildings by Frey during this period include the following:

  • Cree House II
  • Frey’s private residences, Frey House I and Frey House II
  • Loewy House, built for industrial designer Raymond Loewy
  • North Shore Beach and Yacht Club at North Shore, Salton Sea – renovated (May 2010)[3]
  • Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Station
  • Palm Springs City Hall (1952)
  • Salton Bay Yacht Club, Salton City
  • Villa Hermosa (1946) – updated in 1956 by Frey & renovated in 2003[4]
  • Tramway Gas Station, with an iconic “flying wedge” canopy, is now used as a visitors centre at the entrance to the Palm Springs Tramway.

Legacy

After some thought, a shopping complex with a Frey-designed façade at the corner of Sunrise Way and Ramon Road in Palm Springs was removed and replaced with an entirely new centre with architectural accents in Frey’s style. Frey-styled features, such as butterfly rooflines, glass walls, rock facings, and exposed ceilings are being added to newly constructed structures along Palm Canyon Drive.

During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Frey’s structures helped establish Palm Springs as a progressive desert centre for inventive contemporary architecture. He designed a wide range of architectural projects, from customized custom homes to institutional and public structures, the majority of which are still in use today.

Frey’s designs are more integrated into the surrounding area and draw upon the local surroundings for colour and meaning than his contemporaries and fellow European transplant, Richard Neutra. In contrast to Neutra’s, Frey’s designs are more commercial and less intellectually dogmatic, making them more accessible. Frey created a unique regional vernacular by adopting the American vocabulary while combining the modernist philosophy influenced by Le Corbusier. He received the Neutra Award for Professional Excellence in 1996.

Frey was honoured with a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars in 2010.

Sources

Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing.

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, August 8). Albert Frey (architect). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:55, November 16, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Albert_Frey_(architect)&oldid=1037776920

Additional Reading

Frey, A., & Koenig, G. (2008). Albert Frey, 1903 – 1998 lebendige wüstenarchitektur

. Taschen. Retrieved from https://amzn.to/3HwmiDp.

Golub, J., & Frey, A. (1999). Albert Frey houses 1 + 2. Princeton Architectural Press. Retrieved from https://amzn.to/3DjIPAW.

Rosa, J., & Gebhard, D. (1999). Albert Frey, architect. Princeton Architectural Press. Retrieved from https://amzn.to/3oGtowO.

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