Learning From Krisel: 2013 COD Spring Conference - "Regional Modernism"

By Alvin Huang posted 09-12-2013 20:24


Menrad House in Twin Palms Estates by Palmer & Krisel, Palm Springs, CA 
Photo credit: Alvin Huang

A Case Study of Twin Palms and a Conversation with Bill Krisel

The 2013 AIA Committee on Design Conference “Regional Modernism” in Palms Springs, California presented an encompassing probe through the epicenter of California Modernism.  Guided tours gave exclusive access to a number of seminal projects and proved to be a history lesson in the legacy of Mid-Century design; an era where experimentation in lifestyle, materiality, and technological exploration were pivotal to the discipline of design.  In a span of 2 days, over fifteen impressive residential projects were visited, ranging from small cottages and luxurious homes, to large scale hotel developments, all of which epitomized the origins of mid-century modernism and its evolution into the International Style and contemporary Minimalism. Perhaps more importantly, the value of this experience was twofold. It offered not only compelling site visits, but an enriching experience through the connections made with fellow participants. The entire experience of the COD conference was augmented by the personal connections and shared discussions with a collection of design-minded peers from around the country, and as a recently licensed Architect in the formative years of their career this was an invaluable experience in both Architecture and Life.

In my eyes however there is one project, and more importantly, one connection which stood out as the highlight of the trip; the opportunity to visit the restored home of Chris Menrad in the iconic Twin Palms Estates and his impressive collection of original Eames, Jacobsen, and Saarinen design pieces, alongside the opportunity to connect with Bill Krisel himself.  

Through the “Regional Modernism” conference and subsequently the process of writing this paper, I have had the privilege of a series of extended conversations with Bill Krisel who has graciously shared with me his insights, experiences, and wisdom regarding Architecture, Design, and Life.  In this paper, I will use my case study of Twin Palms as an opportunity to share the knowledge that Bill has so generously shared with me.  I feel it is only appropriate, given that my experience in Palm Springs was just as much about connecting with people as it was about experiencing buildings, that my paper reflect how these parallel streams of insight intertwine, and even more fitting considering the beliefs held dear by Bill himself that the project is bigger than the building.

Krisel sharing his insights with the AIA COD at the Menrad House
Photo credit: Alvin Huang

The Story behind Twin Palms

After graduating from the USC School of Architecture in 1949, Bill Krisel alongside Dan Saxon Palmer in his senior year at USC founded the firm Palmer and Krisel.  Krisel and his firm were first invited to Palm Springs in 1955 to advance a novel tract development by the Alexander Construction Company.  The pre-cursor to this project was the Ocotillo Lodge; a hotel designed by Krisel adjacent to the development site, in aims to attract prospective buyers and promote interest in the new Palm Springs housing development. Originally known as Smoke Tree Valley, the development eventually became known as Twin Palms due to the two palm trees that adorned each home.  The juxtaposition of palm trees with the butterfly roof become a trademark of Krisel’s work in each home, a memento to his background as both an architect and landscape architect.

The critical premise proposed by Krisel that solidified the development and helped define the architecture of Palm Springs was in convincing the Alexanders that these homes had to be different than those in the city (Los Angeles).  Unlike the city, these were second homes and vacation destinations geared towards

“the guy who wanted to trade in his three-piece suit and four door car for walking shorts, golf bag, and a seat by the pool”.  

With such an appeal, the projects privileged an open plan and indoor/outdoor spatial experience enabled by post and beam construction, tailored to a lifestyle of entertainment and leisure.

Krisel’s signature butterfly roof at the Menrad House
Photo credit: Alvin Huang

Pragmatics as Design Drivers

Each of the 135 houses in the Twin Palms development is based on a single 40’x40’ floor plan with eight different variations of facades, and eight different framing systems. As the facades of each home varied, the identical floor plans were veiled behind a “custom look”, giving each home in the neighborhood a presence of its own.  Material choices varied accordingly and each facade incorporated a range of possibilities including concrete block, stucco, stone, wood panels and wood siding.  The roof lines also varied, consisting of a long and short butterfly, flat roof and gable roof.  These decisions allowed for the economy of mass production, while enabling the richness and variety necessary to enable the character of a neighborhood.  

The 40’x40’ square layout granted a maximum interior space while minimizing exterior surface area. Though only 1600 square feet each, Krisel’s skill in planning and the open nature of their design made the houses comfortable to live in; every unit had an open patio separating the house from the garage, services were located in the center of the home including an open atrium off the master bathroom, and HVAC ducting was incorporated into the slab, eliminating expensive soffits and allowing for dramatic ceiling heights throughout the house. 

With identical floor plans, the construction of the Twin Palms estates was expedient and efficient. All of the timber members were pre-cut, bundled and delivered to site, while fixed quantities and the elimination of on-site cutting allowed for minimal waste to be achieved. Interested in completing the project for the desert “high” season (Oct/Nov), summer construction in the desert sun made handling steel nearly impossible, leading to material choices such as wood and masonry which became just as much a pragmatic decision as it was an aesthetic or performative one.

Integrated landscaping and architecture at the Menrad House
Landscape architect: William Krisel
Photo credit: Alvin Huang

Revolutionizing the Industry

The 2 bath, 3 bedroom homes were designed using a modular post and beam construction, thus the interior walls were non-load bearing, enabling the open plan living which characterized modernism and the mid-century.  Krisel embraced this technique whole-heartedly, exploring it as a spatial and aesthetic device, but also as a modular assembly and fabrication technique.   

In the context of the early 1950’s, this was a revolutionary building technique.  Krisel had to 

“…retrain the framing contractors because they only knew conventional framing…16” studs on center with trimmers at every door and headers over every door.  As much as they understood the beam, and they understood the post, and they understood the lintel…they just couldn’t conceive of the fact that you didn’t need any studs in between the posts and lintels and the beams to support them.”

To combat this, Krisel took teams of experienced carpenters and untrained them.  By having his construction team erect just the primary structure – the posts, beams and lintels –  and spray painting those elements weathered brown, Krisel highlighted the structural integrity of the building. 

“I said ‘ Fellas, this is what holds up the house, anything else you put in here is just to make separations between one space and another…just keep looking at that color and remember that you can’t cut into that, you can’t drill into that, you can’t move that. Everything else is redundant.’”

This epitomizes the legacy of Krisel not only as an innovator, but as an educator interested in both teaching and un-teaching those around him to enable them to achieve what he aspired to.  As Krisel himself notes 

“I got that idea because I remember Frank Lloyd Wright, in one of his stories he said he not only had to draw the details that he wanted, he also had to draw the details that he didn’t want, because he knew what the contractors were going to try to do.”

Post & Beam construction enables the open plan & Inside/Outside living.
Photo credit: Alvin Huang

The Project is More than the Building

Twin Palms exemplifies Krisel’s obsession with design and how its impact on the occupants of his buildings transcended all scales and disciplines.  In addition to being a licensed Architect, he was a licensed Landscape Architect, graphic designer, and product designer. This multi-disciplinary skill and all encompassing approach to design enabled him to win the trust and confidence of his clients to take on more than the buildings they were commissioning.

“I customized everything, and my philosophy was that the project is more than just the building, it was the interiors, it was anything that went into the house… anything related to the project we were involved in and we had our say in it.”  

At Twin Palms and other tract developments, Krisel fully emmersed himself in the project, taking on the design of the master plan, homes, and landscape along with the interiors of the model home, furniture selection, and brochure layout.  In efforts to remain involved throughout the entirety of the project, Krisel also worked with the advertising agency, designed the graphics for logos, and named the projects.  His ability to relay confidence in design was directly reflected by his clients, whom often requested he go so far as to design customized paper napkins and matchbooks, and occasionaly even ask what kind of car would best match their homes! 

When tasked with the commission to design a factory for washroom equipment manufacturer Bobrick, he not only designed three factories, he re-designed their entire product line, brochure, and technical sheets.  Krisel was able to convince them that since the specifiers of their products were architects, having well-designed products would lead to more architects seeking their products.

Did Krisel help Chris Menrad choose his car to match the butterfly roof?
Photo credit: Alvin Huang

Modernism as an Evolving Language and not a Style

Similar to Richard Neutra’s design philosophy, Krisel follows his predecessor with an adamant belief that Modernism is not a style but rather a language.  Denouncing the importance of style as an end in itself, Krisel emphasizes the importance of build-ability and live-ability, with modern design as the operative language.  

As an early communicator of that language, Krisel has mastered it on many levels, and despite the characteristic signature of his trademark butterfly roof, Bill states bluntly: 

“I don’t believe in style. Decorators do style.  They pick something that’s in today and out tomorrow.  What architects do is not a style; it’s a way of life.”  Real architecture, he says, “has nothing to do with what is “in” or “out” of style.”

While he considers updating a design to keep pace with current trends a taboo, Krisel does believe in the language of modernism evolving.  This evolution includes the expansion of the vocabulary; just as words get added to languages to describe new innovations in society, the vocabulary of mid century modern design expands to facilitate and accommodate new means of living and use of space.

Though the vocabulary of the language may evolve, Krisel believes that the core fundamentals remain rooted in the integration of functionality, aesthetics, and economy.  

“In other words, if you’re doing a block wall, then it is just a block wall.  It does the function and then it ends.  Or can you take the block wall like I did, and make it have integrated ornament…a third dimension that gave shadow and texture.  Or how you lay out the bond, or rake the joints.  All of that is part of the language that is making something functional but taking it one step beyond and making it functional, more attractive, and yet not costing any more.”

“The language is not a stagnant language; it’s a language that adapts to the time.  It’s always based on intelligent research and problem solving.  I think one of the primary purposes of an architect is…to solve the problem.”

Integrated ornament at the Menrad House
Photo credit: Alvin Huang

The Architect as the Captain of the Team

Despite his beliefs in the evolution of the language, Krisel fears the evolution of the practice in which today’s Architect has been reduced from master builder to subsidiary participant, largely due to the growing role of the construction manager and the emergence of specialist sub-consultants.  Krisel laments that

“Architects have gone from being the captain of the team, to being the substitute player that has been replaced by the construction manager.” 

During his prime, Krisel was in full control of not only the project but of his clients. Today he believes the construction manager has more influence over the client than the Architect. He finds it particularly upsetting that in many instances the Architect is chosen by the construction manager rather than the client and is viewed as nothing more than an additional cost.

To combat this, Krisel advises that Architects need to come up with a realistic plan, know how much it costs, and know the codes.

“You have to become a valuable member of a team; you have to be able to contribute something to their discussions when they are talking about what we are going to build.  And once you get their confidence you are looked upon as being a valued adviser… my clients, no matter how big they were, would say “I just bought this acreage, go out and take a look at it, tell me what we are going to do with it”. And they relied on my knowledge… it wasn’t that I was just in agreement, I mean I knew they wanted to make money and I wanted to do better architecture and they are not mutually exclusive.”

The interiors of the Menrad House are a mid-century design museum
Photo credit: Alvin Huang

A Passion for Architecture

When asked what his inspirations are, Krisel’s answer is direct and personable.  Literally.

“I like people, and I like all kinds of people, and I like to learn about people, and I like to listen to people, and I like to have a very difficult problem with lots of limitations.  But I like one critical voice, I don’t believe that you can design by committee…Frank Lloyd Wright said that if you have a project designed by committee then you have a ‘cam-ox’ – half camel / half ox – because it’s compromised…and I hate wasting time compromising.“

“I am really not a thinker, philosopher, and analyzer. Someone asked me once ‘how do you come up with these?’ and I can’t tell you, I just feel it….

To Krisel architecture is about passion and solving problems for people.  If you give him a problem, he will find you a solution that works functionally, fits the budget, has an aesthetic beauty to it, and is appropriate to the site.

Not to mention, architecture is what he has always known he was meant to do. He chose his path at an early age and his advice to young architects echoes that early determination, and continued passion.

“Don’t be an architect unless you would rather do it more than anything else in the world.  I told my wife when I proposed to her “you are No 2, architecture is No 1.” She said “I accept that”. And I admired that. So I think you have to have that feeling first.”

Poolside at the Menrad House
Photo credit: Alvin Huang

The Building is more than the Building.

In the end, my experience of the Twin Palms estates in Palm Springs and with the AIA Committee on Design Conference was nothing short of amazing.  The project was one of many inspiring examples of a period that completely revolutionized the way in which we think not only about the products but also the disciplines of architecture and design. Twin Palms’ innovative deployment of novel construction techniques, progressive aesthetics, and its radical ideas about how we engage with space have clearly left a lasting legacy on contemporary architectural language. It is a unique and historic architectural landmark that I am very happy to see carefully restored and now preserved. 

As impressive as the legacy of the building is, the legacy of the man behind it has moved and inspired me further.  It is only fitting that what started out as a case study of the Twin Palms estate evolved into an extended conversation that went well beyond the boundaries of its post and beam framing system.  
Similar to Krisel’s belief that the project is bigger than the building, his legacy and body of work echo the same character - proving to be bigger than the buildings that remain. I am very fortunate and proud to have had this opportunity to engage with Bill Krisel as a mentor and friend.  

It is precisely this combination of both architectural and interpersonal inspiration and experience that I think makes the Committee on Design Conference a unique and wonderful opportunity that should not be missed.

William Krisel in his Brentwood studio, where he still works daily.
Photo credit: Alvin Huang

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