June 20, 2016

A New Book on Architect William Krisel and his Work in Palm Springs

'William Krisel's Palm Springs,' written by Heidi Creighton and Chris Menrad and published by Gibbs Smith, is a stunning book focusing on the designer's Midcentury Modern desert architecture.

by Nicole Haddad

William Krisel's Palm Springs
From William Krisel’s Palm Springs. Reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.

William Krisel's Palm Springs, written by Heidi Creighton and Chris Menrad and published by Gibbs Smith, is a stunning book focusing on the designer's Midcentury Modern desert architecture.

NYS: What is it about Midcentury Modern architecture that draws you?

Heidi Creighton: I am drawn to the clean and simple yet sophisticated design work and the relationship between structure and the natural environment.

Chris Menrad: I love the purity and simplicity of line. It seems very honest of our time, even though it is actually over 50 years old. I guess that shows the power of it. It still seems fresh and beautiful to me.

NYS: Is there a something particularly separate and special about the Midcentury Modern architecture in Southern California?

Heidi Creighton: The desert provides a perfect offering of extraordinary light and dramatic terrain. Midcentury Modern architecture here employs extensive use of glass that blurs the division between indoor and outdoor spaces. Spaces flow naturally from inside to outside, the transitions are seamless.

In the 1950's, leisure culture, a relaxed California lifestyle, even if only for weekends, meant that work could be more experimental and expressive and that buyers were more open to it.

As a result, there are examples of wonderful Midcentury Modern homes. Among them William Krisel's tract homes in Twin Palms at the south end of Palm Springs.

Chris Menrad: I think that the weather plays a big role for the success of it here. In other parts of the country, where there are four seasons, the openness and use of glass can be a bit difficult. The did it in those regions anyway, but we live so much of the time outdoors that it seems to fit very well with the So. Cal lifestyle.

NYS: Why is William Krisel viewed as a pioneer in Midcentury Modernism?

Heidi Creighton: Krisel was able to bring creative yet practical design to a mass audience with his innovative work in tract housing. He was also adept at satisfying the builder/developers without sacrificing the integrity of his architectural work.

Chris Menrad: I believe his genius was in showing the developer how to build great architecture but make it affordable to many while maximizing that builders profits. That is what seems to be missing today. Krisel made a tract home look custom and unique and showed the builder where to save money—all while creating something beautiful.

NYS: What drew you to putting together a book about him in particular?

From William Krisel's Palm Springs, Photographs: Pg 89 by Julius Shulman. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10). © J. Paul Getty Trust, Pg 60-61 by Darren Bradley, Pg 106 by James Schnepf/Palm Springs Modern Living. Reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.
From William Krisel’s Palm Springs, Photograph by Darren Bradley.
Reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.

Heidi Creighton: While I was familiar with the various articles and books where his work was included, his archive at the Getty Institute, and the documentary film William Krisel: Architect, there were no books devoted exclusively to his architectural philosophy and to his work. It seemed a perfect time to explore this project, especially since Mr Krisel was available and willing to work with us.

Chris Menrad: It had never been done, and I felt it was due him. And I wanted it published while he was still alive. Plus, we had the opportunity to consult with him and get the details correct.

NYS: What should we expect from William Krisel's Palm Springs?

Heidi Creighton: This book is the first monograph of Krisel's work in the Coachella Valley and his architectural philosophy. It includes historical photographs by the late Julius Shulman, images from the Krisel archives, contributions by architectural scholars including Wim De Wit, Alan Hess, Barbara Lamprecht, and others. It examines important projects in the desert such as tract housing in the Twin Palms neighborhood of Palm Springs, the condominium project Sandpiper in Palm Desert as well as custom homes.

Chris Menrad: I would expect a beautiful book that is fun both to look at and read. It is not an exhaustive, scholarly undertaking. But it provides an overview of his work with a lot of newly published photos, his renderings, and plans.

NYS: Considering Krisel has more than 40,000 living units how did you choose which of the architects' designs to feature?

Heidi Creighton: We decided, with Mr Krisel, that we would focus on the architecture of the Coachella Valley—especially Palm Springs. Palm Springs has become well known as a center for excellent examples of Midcentury Modern architecture in California, and we wanted to expand upon that by drawing attention to Krisel's work there.

Chris Menrad: We elected to feature his work in the Palm Springs area. His body of work is so huge and with such a wide variety in types of projects, that we elected to focus on what we knew best, and could best accommodate in a book. Hence the desert.

Reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.
From William Krisel’s Palm Springs. James Schnepf/Palm Springs Modern Living.
Reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.

NYS: Why do you think Palm Springs has captured so significantly the spirit of an exuberant lifestyle?

Heidi Creighton: Palm Springs is situated several hours away from both Los Angeles and San Diego. In the 1950's and earlier, it was a retreat for movie stars and other entertainers. Non-celebrities too were able to celebrate the leisure lifestyle only a car-ride away.

Today, that romantic spirit persists in the City with a variety of extraordinary examples of Midcentury Modern architecture, a range of out-door activities, festivals that celebrate all aspects of Modernism and film-making, excellent museums, a variety of restaurants and a dramatic natural setting that includes the San Jacinto mountains.

Chris Menrad: It is a vacation place, a resort, and a place to get away from it all. It's close to LA and attracted a lot of Hollywood types who wanted to escape the spotlight and let their hair down. And when more vacation periods increased and second homes became a reality post WW2, the average man could go there and do the same.

NYS: What tenet does Krisel explore in his work, and how do you think he employed this in his designs?

Heidi Creighton: Mr Krisel is extremely clear about his architectural philosophy which he writes about in our book under the title: "I AM NOT A modern ARCHITECT".

He describes his language of Modernism that is the same today as it was in the 1950's and yet it is able to absorb new "words" such as new technologies, materials and building codes without sacrificing the integrity of the original design. This living architecture is as fresh today as it would have been when it was first presented some 60 years ago.

Chris Menrad: He considers the inside and outside to be part of the same space and works to integrate the two. One of the reasons he is also a landscape architect because he believes these things should not be done by separate individuals. This is very important in his work.

NYS: Why does Krisel describe himself as NOT a modern architect?

Heidi Creighton: The term "modern" to Mr Krisel means only "of the current time". That "modern" is an adjective that describes a style that can easily become dated or unfashionable over time- the opposite of what he has created.

Chris Menrad: He believes that modern connotes a style. His work is not a style but a language of communicating his ideas about space and light and planning to the client.

NYS: What is it about his signature placing of twin palm trees that so drew him?

William Krisel
From William Krisel’s Palm Springs. Photograph by Julius Shulman.
Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10). © J. Paul Getty Trust.
Reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.

Heidi Creighton: Besides being a licensed architect, Mr Krisel is also a licensed landscape architect. He was responsible for the landscape design and selection of plants for his buildings and does not believe that landscaping is secondary to architecture but rather, that both speak equally to each other. In the Twin Palms neighborhood, each home was provided twin palm trees. The decision was both aesthetic and pragmatic which further illustrates Krisel's consistent ability to meld his creative expression with the practical concerns of the builder/developer.

For example, when drawing the palm trees for each site, he drew them in with shadows rather than typically, with only circles—a small one to indicate the tree trunk and a larger one to describe the canopy. Drawing the shadows meant that he could ensure control over the precise placement of the palms by installers.

Chris Menrad: I'm not so sure this is a signature feature of his. I believe it was just a way of starting the home off with some landscaping, at least as relates to twin palms.

NYS: What do you think he intuited American postwar modern living as? And why was he uniquely prepared to fulfill this dream?

Heidi Creighton: Krisel has had an extraordinary life beginning in Shanghai and later in Beverly Hills; World War 2 experience which meant that he met many different types of men serving in the military; and an education at USC (University of Southern California) where he was introduced to the philosophy of Modernism, architecture and landscape architecture. He began his career at a time when optimism, experimentation, mass-manufacturing and new materials were finding expression in American postwar culture.

Chris Menrad: I think he new that after the war, people wanted to live in a different way, more freely and more open. New technologies, ideas and materials allowed him to explore this with his archtitecture.

NYS: What is one of the most fascinating things you learned about Krisel while editing and putting together this book?

Heidi Creighton: There were many fascinating stories that Mr Krisel was able to share with us during visits to his archives at the Getty Institute. I admired his ingenuity during the early days at the beginning of his practice, his extraordinary attention to every aspect of his work including materials where he provided the manufacturers with the design work, his design of built-in furniture, graphics, paint colors, and most especially, his complete confidence and dedication to the practice of architecture.

Chris Menrad: The shear tenacity of the man. The genius of him, his incredible mind and memory.

NYS: The book's photography is absolutely stunning! How did you manage to include so many by Julius Shulman? What would you say is special about his work?

Heidi Creighton: Thank you. We are very pleased with the images, especially the Shulman and Bradley photographs. The design of the book must be credited to our book designer, Gary Wexler, for its wonderful visual appeal.

Krisel and Shulman were colleagues, and Shulman photographed many of Krisel's projects. In fact, our book cover features a photograph taken by Shulman of Krisel's wife, Corinne in the backyard of one of the tract homes in Twin Palms. These images are from the Shulman Archives also located at the Getty Research Institute.

Like Krisel, Shulman understood the relationship between the structure and the environment that it lived in. His work is elegant, romantic and dramatic.

Chris Menrad: We are very grateful to the Getty Institute for providing us with all these images. Shulman had a way of capture the sense of the place and the feeling that it imbued. It was more than just architectural photography.

NYS: What is one of Krisel's most famous designs and why? What is your particular favorite and why?

Heidi Creighton: Chapter Five, written by Jim West, features Krisel's condominium project "Sandpiper" (1958-1969). It is considered one of Krisel's masterpieces. Sandpiper features many of the design elements that are identified in both the tract and custom homes—decorative concrete block walls, flat roofs with post-and-beam construction, clerestory windows, sun flaps, detailed plant placement, irregularly shaped swimming pools, and buildings where orientation was altered to project variety.

I am partial to the tract homes located in the Twin Palms neighborhood of Palm Springs, particularly the Model A-3 that features a flat roof with sun flaps. It is very interesting to walk in the neighborhood today and realize that although the homes each look different there are only eight variations to the exteriors. As with Sandpiper, Krisel rotated the houses on the lots and provided several roof shapes (gable, flat and butterfly) so that the homes appear custom-designed.

Chris Menrad: I think, at least as far as Palm Springs is concerned, that it would be his butterfly roofed homes. He did not invent the concept, but he is the one architect that used it most frequently. I love it because it is a very happy space inside. It feels exuberant and it lets in a lot of light and views. It also mimics the shape of the ever-present mountains beyond Palm Springs.

NYS: How did Krisel change his approach when designing at a neighborhood scale?

Heidi Creighton: Krisel tailored his approach to the challenge at hand. The more complex the project, the happier he was to take it on. This probably indicates why the tract homes were so successful. He had to address the practical issues presented by the builder/developers—budget, time constraints, desert climate for working conditions and materials, marketing, pricing, and landscaping—all while not sacrificing his creative vision. His great success at marrying creative design with practicality was very well expressed in the tract houses of Palm Springs.

Chris Menrad: I am not sure he did. I think his language is similar at all scales

NYS: Why is the Krisel language still so relevant today?

Chris Menrad: I think it still feels right and good to be in one of his spaces. It also looks fantastic!

NYS: If there is one lesson we could take from Krisel's designs, what would you say it should be?

Heidi Creighton: That it is possible to be both extraordinarily creative and yet completely practical. One doesn't need to sacrifice one for the other.

Chris Menrad: Good design is available at all price points. Ignoring that is being lazy. Developers and builders need to learn this lesson soon.

NYS: Where can we find the book?

Heidi & Chris: Our publisher is Gibbs Smith. At almost any bookstore, Amazon, and other online book sellers.

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