Past Masters of Modernism: the Alexanders

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Investigate the history of modernist architecture and you’ll discover a landscape populated by visionaries. While architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Richard Neutra and Charles and Ray Eames, and Albert Frey, are fabulously feted for their contribution to the cause, developers of the time are the unsung heroes of the built environment.

The father-and-son team of George and Robert Alexander are a classic case in point. The Alexanders were prominent figures in the California construction scene in the 50s and 60s. Their lasting legacy is a raft of more than 2500 homes in the Palm Springs area that share an aesthetic we admire and love.

The duo knew a good thing when they saw it – and they wanted to share it. Their idea of bringing ‘modern to the masses’ was to team with some of the leading architects of the day to develop affordable starter homes for the average Californian family.

One of our favourite developments is the Twin Palms housing tract located in what was then an unfashionable part of town. Architect William Krisel was commissioned to design homes with a footprint of 160 square metres. ‘Starter’ they may have been, but they still managed to offer a swimming pool and two palm trees with every package!

Today those quiet cul-de-sacs are populated with modernist gems: neat, small, fenceless homes with a lightness of being to their butterfly roofs and deftly designed desert gardens. As far as suburban planning goes, this area is a masterpiece. The thing is, each exterior looks different – the facades and rooflines altered to provide a range of styles – but step beyond the threshold and the open-plan footprint is exactly the same. The three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes all had an identical square floorplan – flipped or rotated perhaps – but cookie cutter nevertheless. They looked individual, but they weren’t. That’s just one of the ways the Alexanders kept construction costs down. The others are methods we already employ at Box™: post-and-beam construction, elements of prefabrication, efficient planning, the creative use of simple resources, standard material sizes and straightforward construction techniques. “Designed by Architects, Built by Master Builders for Permanent Value” boasted the Alexanders’ early ads. It could be a marketing campaign for Box™.

The Alexanders undoubtedly changed the face of Palm Springs. They were the rock stars of the design-and-build world and, sadly, they went out as rock stars are won’t to do – dying in a light airplane crash in 1965.