Featured Architect: Albert Frey


Albert Frey (October 3, 1903 - November 14, 1998) was an early ambassador of the International Style of architecture to the United States, and he brought its themes to buildings in harmony with the American desert.

For Frey, the desert was his true love. ''When I saw the landscape of the desert, I knew I found a place I could call home,'' he said to Joseph Rosa, his biographer. Frey was a prolific architect who established a style of modernist architecture - centered on Palm Springs, California - that came to be known as "desert modernism" in the years following World War II. This style is now generally – and widely – referred to as ‘mid-century modern’.

''He was the last of a generation of European architects that came to the West Coast envisioning that, in this unformed landscape, a perfected vision of a modern future could bloom,'' said Terence Riley, chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Frey belonged to a generation that believed in a political role for modern architecture, that of social liberation through machine-made, egalitarian and affordable designs. His chosen materials were aluminum, glass, cables and, eventually, the very boulders and sands of the desert where he settled.

Throughout a career that spanned more than 65 years, Frey remained true to the principle that architecture should make the most of the least. His best known works were the East Coast houses he designed with Lawrence Kocher in the 1930's, and the many buildings he created in the Palm Springs of the mid-twentieth century.

Born in Zurich, Switzerland, Albert Frey received his architecture diploma in 1924 from the Institute of Technology in Winterthur, Switzerland. There Frey trained in traditional building construction and received technical instruction rather than design instruction in the then popular Beaux-Arts style. Prior to receiving his diploma, Frey apprenticed with the architect A. J. Arter in Zurich and worked in construction during his school vacations.

It was also around this time that Frey became aware of the Dutch De Stijl movement, the German Bauhaus school and movement, and the modernism movement developing in Brussels. All would prove to be significant influences to Frey's later work.

From 1924 through 1928 Frey worked on various architectural projects in Belgium. In 1928, Frey secured a position in the Paris atelier of the noted International Style architect Le Corbusier. Frey was one of two full-time employees of the atelier, and coworkers included Josep Lluís Sert, Kunio Maekawa, and Charlotte Perriand. While there, Frey worked on the detailing of one of Le Corbusier's masterworks, the Villa Savoye. In 1929, Frey left Le Corbusier’s atelier to take up work in the United States, but he continued to maintain a friendship with Le Corbusier for many years.

In 1930, Mr. Frey came to the United States, convinced that it was the land of opportunity for modernist design. In New York, he worked for several prominent architects, including Philip Goodwin, one of the architects of the Museum of Modern Art. Mr. Frey is credited by his biographer with contributing to the design of the original Roy and Niuta Titus Theater, as well as the museum's roof deck, with its distinctive circular cut-outs. Both were recently restored by Yoshio Taniguchi.

In September, 1930, Frey returned to New York from another visit to France. Frey, the first architect in America to have worked directly with Le Corbusier, now began working with the American architect A. Lawrence Kocher, who was also the managing editor of the Architectural Record. Their collaboration would last until 1935, and they would reunite for a brief collaboration again in 1938.

Although only four buildings were built by the pair, they contributed significantly to the American modernist movement through their numerous articles published in Architectural Record on urban planning, the modernist aesthetic, and technology. But it was the 1931 Aluminaire House, designed for an exhibition, that drew critical and popular attention to Frey and Kocher. Commissioned by the Architectural League as a way to promote modernist housing ideas, the Aluminaire House was one of only two American houses represented in Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock's landmark 1932 museum show, International Exhibition: Modern Architecture. The house was later sold to New York architect Wallace K. Harrison for $1000. Harrison used it as a guest house on his Long Island property for years.

In 1987, with modernism in disfavor, the aluminum and glass house was about to be destroyed when the New York Institute of Technology rescued it and moved it to the West Islip, N.J., campus of the New York Institute, where it was dismantled – and subsequently re-constructed – at the new site.

Another of Frey and Kocher’s commissions was an office/apartment dual-use building for Kocher's brother, Dr. J. J. Kocher of Palm Springs. This project introduced Frey to the California desert, which was to become his home as well as the backdrop for most of his subsequent work.

From 1935 to 1937 Frey worked with John Porter Clark (1905–1991), a Cornell-educated architect, under the firm name of Van Pelt and Lind Architects, as both were yet unlicensed in California. April 1937 saw Frey briefly return to the east coast to work on the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Upon completion of his work on the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, Frey returned to the California desert to resume his collaboration with Clark, which was to continue for nearly twenty more years.

At the end of World War II Palm Springs' population almost tripled, and the city experienced a building boom. Known as an escape for the Hollywood elite and a winter haven for east coast industrialists, Palm Springs emerged post-war as a resort community for a broader segment of the American populace with more leisure time than any previous generation.

Frey and Clark were well positioned to capitalize on this, and both the city and their firm benefited from an unprecedented period of construction. Significant buildings by Frey during this period include the following:

  • Kocher-Samson Building – 766 N. Palm Canyon Drive

  • Cree House II – Raymond Drive, Cathedral City

  • Frey's private residences: Frey House I – 2743 N. Indian Canyon Drive - and Frey House II – 686 W. Palisades Drive

  • Loewy House, built for industrial designer Raymond Loewy – 600 W. Panorama Road – in collaboration with John Porter Clark

  • Monkey Tree Hotel (1960) – 2388 E. Racquet Club Road - now the Terra Cotta Inn

  • North Shore Beach and Yacht Club at North Shore, Salton Sea – renovated (May 2010)

  • Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Station

  • Palm Springs City Hall (1952) – 3200 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way – in collaboration with John Porter Clark, E. Stewart Williams, and Robson Chambers

  • Tramway Gas Station, with its iconic "flying wedge" canopy, at the foot of the entrance to the tramway on the northern edge of Palm Springs, now used as a visitor's center

In 2001, after considerable debate, a 1960 shopping center at the corner of Sunrise Way and Ramon Road in Palm Springs that bore an Albert Frey-designed façade (in collaboration with Robson Chambers) was demolished and replaced with an entirely new center that incorporates architectural touches in Frey's style. Newly designed structures along Palm Canyon Drive are now being fitted with Frey-styled accents, including butterfly rooflines, glass walls, rock facings and exposed ceilings.

Frey's buildings contributed significantly to establishing Palm Springs as a progressive desert mecca for innovative modern architecture during the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. He produced designs for the spectrum of architectural commissions, from bespoke custom homes to institutional and public buildings, most of which are still in use today. According to Frey, he preferred houses as a form of expression.

In comparison with his contemporary and fellow European transplant, Richard Neutra, Frey's designs are more integrated into the surrounding landscape and draw from the local surroundings for color and metaphor. In contrast to Neutra, Frey's designs are both more commercial and less philosophically dogmatic, and hence more accessible. By embracing the American idiom while incorporating the modernist philosophy influenced by Le Corbusier, Frey produced a new regional vernacular. In 1996, Frey was awarded the Neutra Award for Professional Excellence.

Frey’s own Palm Springs homes - Frey I and Frey II - encapsulated the man in their spare elegance perfectly attuned to the landscape. Both houses are made of corrugated aluminum and glass. Frey I, which has been substantially altered over the years by subsequent owners, featured a stairway and dining table suspended by cables from the ceiling. Frey II, where the architect lived from the 60's on, is centered on a single room built around a boulder.

With the resurgent interest in modernist architecture, Albert Frey is once again in vogue. Of more than 200 projects in Palm Springs that Albert Frey designed, or collaborated on, many are both notable and very much intact. In addition to those listed above:

  • Carey-Pirozzi House – 651 West Via Escuela

  • Villa Hermosa – 155 Hermosa Place

  • Nichols Building – 891-899 North Palm Canyon

  • Clark & Frey Office Building – 879 North Palm Canyon

  • Samson Office Building – 760 North Palm Canyon

  • Premiere Apartments, (at the Orchid Tree Inn) – 261 South Belardo Road

  • First Church of Christ, Scientist – Riverside Drive at Random Road

  • Fire Station I – 277 North Indian Canyon Drive

  • Movie Colony Hotel – 726 North Indian Canyon Drive

  • Katherine Finchy School – 777 East Tachevah Road

  • Sieroty House – 695 East Vereda Sur

Albert Frey passed away, at home in Palm Springs, on November 14, 1998, and was buried at the Welwood Murray Cemetery. A Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars, in downtown Palm Springs, was dedicated to Frey in 2010.

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