The house punches above its weight by making a seamless connection between the home’s interior, the exterior courtyard and the desert beyond. Frey’s approach to design, so different from the Spanish-style homes popular at the time, helped create a new style of architecture called Desert Modern.
House at a Glance
Who lives here: Jim Gaudineer owns the home designed in 1946 for Raymond Loewy
Location: Palm Springs, California
Size: 1,100 square feet (102 square meters); the courtyard is 1,700 square feet (158 square meters)
Architect: Albert Frey
Architect Albert Frey’s defining quality was his ability to learn from and adapt his designs to the local environment he was building in.
Frey grew up and attended architectural school in Switzerland. As a young man, he worked for the famed Swiss architect Le Corbusier. During that time, he was responsible for the detailed design of many elements of the Villa Savoye, including the sliding glass doors and cabinetry. Sliding glass doors weren’t available in France at that time, so Frey based his detailing on the Sweets catalog, a resource for standard building materials widely used by American architects. Sliding glass was to become a key feature of Frey’s future home designs.
Frey emigrated to the U.S. from Switzerland in 1922, initially living and working in New York. The good fortune of receiving a modest commission in Palm Springs in 1934 brought the young architect west, where he set up his practice with John Porter Clark. At the time, Palm Springs was growing as a winter getaway for the stars of Hollywood, including Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant and many others. The crowd was open to the innovative ideas of a small band of modernist architects practicing there, which already included Donald Wexler, Richard Neutra and William Krisel.
The desert had a profound influence on Frey. As he wrote of Palm Springs to his mentor Le Corbusier, “It provides the rare pleasure of combining a magnificent natural environment with being a center for interesting and varied activities. Moreover, the sun, the pure air and the simple forms of the desert create perfect conditions for architecture.”
In 1946, 12 years after arriving in Palm Springs, Frey was commissioned by Raymond Loewy, the famous industrial designer of such icons as the Studebaker Avanti, Shell gas logo and Greyhound bus, to build a home. Loewy was in high demand worldwide, and he called on Frey to design him a modest-size bachelor pad as a winter getaway.
To deal with the steep grade and leave the boulder field intact, Frey placed the carport close to the road. The house is accessible only by foot via a path leading down from the carport. The path skirts the perimeter of the boulder field.
The house, invisible from the road, is set on a lower and relatively flat portion of the site, with fewer boulders. It’s carefully placed within the rocks, which become an integral part of the house and landscape design.
Frey creates a sense of anticipation by withholding the grand view. Even on entering the house, the view is contained within a compact foyer.
A wall of sliding glass doors opens the house to the south, making the home feel larger. With the living room doors open, a clear opening of 15 feet is created, allowing a seamless flow from inside to out.
The pool’s perimeter is shaped around existing boulders. One end of the pool extends under the sliding glass doors right into the living room, creating a literal indoor-outdoor connection. One particularly large boulder forms the support for the sliding doors and emerges in the living room.
Parties at the house were known to get a little wild, and legend has it that actor and neighbor William Powell once fell into the pool. Jim Gaudineer, the home’s current owner, installed a bench to prevent people from falling in.
“I’m much more interested to get the most for the least money. It’s a challenge that way,” Frey said in an interview with Jennifer Golub for Albert Frey Houses 1 + 2.
By remarkable coincidence, Richard Neutra’s famous Kaufmann house was under construction at the same time as the Loewy house, on an adjacent lot by the same contractor.
The difference between these two houses tells much about Frey’s unique approach to design. The house Neutra designed is much more what was expected in houses of that time for wealthy clients. It’s large — over 3,000 square feet — and built with expensive and refined materials, including mortared stone walls, some rising two stories in height; varnished exterior wood soffits; and custom manufactured aluminum sun louvers. On the other hand, Frey’s Loewy house is much smaller and features much more modest materials.
The tall wall on the right side of the entrance is clad in galvanized corrugated metal, achieving an edgy look 50 years before Frank Gehry broke the mold with his zinc- and titanium-clad buildings. The wall directly ahead is simple concrete block laid in a stacked bond pattern, painted white. The primary walls of the house are standard stick frame construction and clad in stucco. Instead of the expensive wood used for the Kauffman house ceilings, Frey’s ceiling canopy is made of stucco and painted a playful orange.
Note how informally Frey deals with rainwater runoff from the roof: A small drain pipe protrudes from the underside of the overhang, and directly below on the concrete floor is a standard drain. The house rests on a concrete slab covered in part in simple tile and carpet.
This was part of Frey’s education of the desert environment, and he clearly learned a lesson here. The exteriors of his future homes feature much more durable materials. For example, in the house he designed for himself, the Frey House II, there is no exterior wood, only concrete block, corrugated metal and steel beams.