An Evening with Leo Marmol and Steven Price at Modernism Week 2017 by Alston Thompson

  This newly constructed Al Beadle designed house in Palm Springs was open to tours during Modernism Week 2017.

 This newly constructed Al Beadle designed house in Palm Springs was open to tours during Modernism Week 2017.

Easily the most interesting event of my first weekend at Modernism Week in Palm Springs was the panel discussion featuring Steven Price, with his new book Trousdale Estates: Midcentury to Modern in Beverly Hills, and Leo Marmol, notable architect of Marmol + Radziner. Moderated by the clever editor Michael Boodro of Elle Décor Magazine, the discussion organically bounced across challenges and trends in preserving mid-century homes, the iconic architects and architecture in Trousdale and Palm Springs and the surrounding areas. As Boodro acknowledged, “. . it’s not enough to preserve midcentury homes... nobody wants to live in a period room. So we really wanted to talk to someone who understands how you adapt mid-century to the twenty-first century. And there’s no one more experienced in that area than Leo [Marmol]”

The National Park Service of the US Department of the Interior Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties provides guidelines for four distinct approaches: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction. Marmol made a point to highlight the midcentury architecture of Palm Springs as the one place his firm has applied all four approaches in their work.

Steven Price’s droll and entertaining humor immediately set the stage when he asked the audience to set its collective “33’s to 45” because he had a lot of ground he wanted to cover. The evening was an enlightening and often hilarious course in modern mesign by a master practitioner and a knowledgeable historian whose passion and insight made for what was in this writer’s opinion one of the most exhilarating educational experiences I’ve had in a long time.

Price reminded the audience, some of whom were decked out in go-go boots and mini dresses, of the relative nature of the term “Modern”. Most of the homes in Trousdale are over fifty years old. Steven Price suggested Mid-century modern falls into two categories: “The Ceremonial” in which the design is aspirational and “The Familial”. When Trousdale Estates was begun in 1955, Paul Trousdale, the developer, had already built around 25,000 mostly conservative houses, shopping centers and hotels. Trousdale built only eight of the 535 houses on the 410 acres, which was essentially the backyard of the 46,000 square foot Graystone Mansion at Doheny Ranch. For the other 527 home sites he supplied the infrastructure and the lots and the homes were built by the owners. Trousdale’s marketing material described living in Trousdale Estates as living “above it all”. Stephen Price fell in love with the Trousdale Style at the age of ten cruising around the neighborhood with his dad who he described as Don Draper minus the alcohol. But what made Stephen Price’s presentation so enthralling and his passion so contagious was his irreverent humor. He dubbed the look of an A. Quincy Jones designed home made-over from its original earth tones and wood to mostly glass and mirrors: “Ice Palace Disco” and an extravagant home dominated by glass and gold alloy aluminum, he called “Mies Van Deluxe”.

An architectural review board, headed by master architect Allen Siple, mandated the homes be at least 3,000 square feet, well over double the national average at the time, and single story with a fourteen foot height limit to protect the views, but the homes were not prescribed stylistic constraints. Price observed that the best designs “didn’t even look like homes. They more closely resembled banks, museums or country clubs”. Since Trousdale didn’t fill the development with spec homes, the designs weren’t watered down to appeal to the broadest spectrum of the market. These were statement homes designed by A-list architects and interior designers, fueled by massive budgets in a time of exuberant optimism and conspicuous consumption.

By the 1990s Trousdale had lost a lot of its appeal and many homes were razed and replaced. Fortunately mid-century modern has come back into favor and many buyers are restoring and adapting the homes to today’s sensibilities.

Leo Marmol recalled the lack of interest in mid-century modern architecture in the early 1990s when he and his partner Ron Radziner were chosen to restore Neutra’s 1946 modern masterpiece the Kaufman House in Palm Springs. With a touch of self-deprecation, he acknowledged the fact that he and Ron were chosen for the Kaufman House because they were the only firm willing to drive out to Palm Springs to look at it. “There just weren’t any preservationists interested in that type of design in the late 80s and early 90s” he said.

Marmol emphasized that his firm’s approach to preservation is not about fighting change but rather respectfully adapting homes to current sensibilities. As an example he noted that most kitchens were “back of house” in the forties, fifties and sixties. Now kitchens are opened up to the living room and dining room experience.

Michael Boodro asked how the design community could be doing a better job of educating people on the beauty of modern design. “Why do we see so much ersatz Georgian and ersatz Tudor and ersatz Victorian?” Marmol pointed out that doing modern is hard; the history of ornamentation is about covering up imperfections. He use crown molding as an example; it’s there to cover up a gap between the wall and ceiling that’s unsightly. His point was that less is necessarily more expensive when it comes to modern design. The response from Marmol and Price was also hopeful and often hilarious. Price quipped “I completely agree with the excellence of the clarity of the modern, but I had to learn to love other styles too; and let myself love them. I was always thinking ‘I’m not going to be cool if I like Victorian’... which I don’t….”

He pointed out that the preservationists’ latest challenge is in defending postmodern design. Examples he sighted are three Michael Graves’ homes in Malibu. While Price is not necessarily a big fan of Michael Graves’ work, he recognizes its importance and hopes the homes will be saved. This raised an important point about how it takes time for many styles to be observed, appreciated, and thereby preserved.

Marmol went on to challenge the premise of the question with some rhetorical questions of his own: “How many people came to Modernism Week this year compared to year one? How many books are being sold today on modern design? How much traffic is there on the internet looking at modern design in a way that’s never happened before?...I think we’ve seen a tremendous rise in the influence of modern design. Look at Elle Decor. When you look at magazines like Elle Decor and your competitors that are putting the word out at the level you are, it’s great!”

The watershed moment for preservation of Mid-century Modern homes in Beverly Hills and beyond was the Kronish House, a Richard Neutra designed Modern masterpiece. After years of being unoccupied, the home was listed as an $11 million dollar tear down in 2011. When demolition began, public outcry demanded the house be saved from demolition. Thankfully a Marmol+Radziner client had the resources and vision to rescue the home. With Marmol taking the lead, the Kronish House was a rallying point and galvanized the city of Los Angeles’ preservation efforts, ultimately culminating in an innovative, yet very restrictive, preservation ordinance. The unintended consequence of protecting homes through landmark designation is that homeowners sometimes find it’s easier to raze an existing home and build a new home, rather than to seek approval for changes to a landmark home.

Boodro brought the discussion back to community oversight and planning; and how helpful or restrictive it might be in producing great design. Marmol’s opinion is that “the communities that have been the most successful, the planning guidelines are not aesthetic...they are about scale...they are about mass...they are about setback…We’ve done new houses in Trousdale and the original planning guidelines were very restrictive but nowhere in there does it say ‘and it has to be modern’.”