Design Bites – June

A modernist escape for the stars, the blackest black on Earth and a modular future (or is it?)

Leonardo di Caprio’s Wexler-designed getaway

What has inspired us:

They call it “the epicentre of midcentury architectural and design experiences” and that’s not just marketing hype. Modernism Week in Palm Springs is the business for modernist addicts! The annual 11-day event (I know – it’s longer than a week, right?) takes place in February each year so get planning for your own great escape in 2022 as you’ll need to book tickets to be part of this non-stop party in the desert.  There are more than 350 events to attend including tours of iconic homes and gardens, talks, and architectural walks or cycle rides around some incredible neighbourhoods. You will never tire of exploring this place where Hollywood celebrities, past and present, loved to holiday. Seven decades ago, you’d have been rubbing shoulders with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Howard Hughes; today you can rent Leonardo di Caprio’s Wexler-designed getaway for a cool US$4500 per night.

Leonardo di Caprio’s Wexler-designed getaway

If that’s too rich for your pocket, get a free glimpse of the Kaufmann Desert house, designed by Richard Neutra in 1946 (that’s the one with the pool that features in the famous Slim Aarons photograph). Pack your glad rags for the balmy evenings when you’ll party like its 1959 with cocktails and dancing against the sunset-kissed backdrop of the San Jacinto mountains. Can’t make it for the festivities in February? Don’t fret because Palm Springs is perfect to visit pretty much year-round. Our insider tip is to book yourself into The Modern Tour, run by local resident, author Michael Stern, who has written several books about photographer Julius Shulman (best known for capturing the Case Study houses). It’s a fun two-hour experience that often ends with a visit inside Frey House II, the long-time residence of architect Albert Frey. It’s a small home built around a rocky outcrop (literally) has a kidney- shaped swimming pool and a magnificent outlook over the resort city. See and for more details.

The Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs, designed by lauded architect Richard Neutra
Frey House II
Frey House II

What got us thinking:

Blackest black on earth

When we read that engineers at MIT (that’s the technology institute in Massachusetts not Manukau) had developed the blackest black on earth, we were intrigued. This new yet-to-be-named coating absorbs 99.995 per cent of visible light, rendering any object all but invisible. Its manufacture is something to do with carbon nanotubes which the scientific boffins were playing around with to boost the thermal properties of aluminium and, well, somehow ended up with the world’s darkest material. It’s pretty well known that Kiwis love black: it’s a wardrobe staple for most of us and, unlike in other countries, the colour also features frequently on the exterior cladding of our homes. We can understand how the search for the blackest black might help space science, as it’s light-absorbing properties are essential to telescope and satellite technology. But how could it translate into architecture? A quick Google search later, and we came across the Vantablack Pavilion designed by British architect Asif Khan for the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. Vantablack is the predecessor of this latest black and, famously, Anish Kapoor secured the worldwide exclusive rights to use it in his art. The angular pavilion is like “a portal to another planet”, more art than architecture, but designers are already pondering the usefulness of this product such as for the interiors of museums, so the works don’t decay due to light exposure, and on cabling so that it is rendered invisible. No doubt, we’ll be hearing and seeing more on this nanomaterial; one day, it may even develop into a retail line. Which begs the question: what sort of reception would a black-coated house that virtually disappears from view receive? Check out Asif Khan’s pavilion here:

What made us take notice:

We’ve written a fair bit about off-site manufacture in our blog over the years – and what it can and can’t do for the local construction industry. So, we were concerned to hear that one of the world’s largest prefabrication companies has gone into liquidation. Katerra is a Silicon Valley start-up that raised US$2 billion (yes, 2 billion) from investors and venture capitalists when it launched in 2015. Now, a mere six years later, the company that promised to “transform construction through innovation of process and technology” is making its workforce redundant and shutting up shop. So what is it that went so horribly wrong? Apparently one reason for their demise is that they didn’t understand how the regulatory landscape differed in various parts of the States. Another was their focus on medium to large-scale projects. And a third, and perhaps the most important factor, is that the business tried to grow too rapidly. The underlying lesson is that, while technology has its part to play in this so-called ‘revolution’, it’s not a magic bullet. Off-site manufacture has its part to play and we’re lagging behind other countries such as Sweden and Japan who have successfully forged ahead with this form of home building (none the least because their population accepts the idea of houses that are not completely bespoke). Meanwhile, there are other modular/prefab advocates to keep an eye on, including BoKlok, a collaboration between Ikea and Swedish multinational construction firm Skanka that build ‘starter’ homes throughout Scandinavia and the UK. They’re affordable (think £200,000 for a two-bedroom apartment in the city of Bristol), sustainable and have that pared-back Scandi style. You can watch a video of how they put these modular developments together here:

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