This weekend marks the kickoff of Modernism Week, Palm Springs's annual celebration of all things midcentury modern. One of its highlights is "Steel and Shade: The Architecture of Donald Wexler," an exhibition at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Wexler, 85, has practiced in Palm Springs for almost six decades, developing an architecture that is acutely sensitive to the extremes of the desert climate. Wexler's all-steel Alexander houses, designed in 1962 with the structural engineer Bernard Perlin for the developers George and Robert Alexander, were sustainable before sustainability was trendy. Affordable, elegant and quick to assemble on site, thanks to a prefabricated structural system, Wexler's houses (their framing, roofs and exterior siding are steel, with drywall interior siding) were the perfect answer to the postwar housing boom. "Steel, concrete and glass are ideal materials for the desert," Wexler says. "They are inorganic and don't deteriorate in the extreme temperatures of the desert." And since these structures are relatively maintenance-free, the seven Alexander houses in a north Palm Springs enclave are as pristine today as they were almost 50 years ago.
A full-scale sectional steel model in the exhibition, along with a video, gives visitors the experience of inhabiting a Wexler-designed house. Wexler, who moved to Palm Springs in 1952 after a stint in Richard Neutra's Los Angeles office, recalls that "there was a collective sense that we could do anything; we could accomplish anything; we could experiment." While he chose to keep his office small and limited his practice to the desert community, Wexler produced an astounding body of work that included houses, schools, hotels, banks and the Palm Springs International Airport. And he hasn't stopped yet. "Hamptons Modern," currently under construction, brings California modernism to the East End of Long Island. Marnie McBryde, a developer, has plans to build up to 50 Wexler-designed houses, which are deft adaptations of the 1964 Palm Springs house he designed for Dinah Shore, throughout the Hamptons.
"Steel and Shade: The Architecture of Donald Wexler" is co-curated by Lauren Weiss Bricker, a professor of architecture at CalPoly Pomona, which houses Wexler's archive, and Sidney Williams, the curator of architecture and design at the museum, and is on view through May 29.