Iconic California Midcentury-Modern Architect William Krisel Dies at 92

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By Jennifer Baum Lagdameo / Published by Dwell
At the age of 92, William Krisel—the pioneering architect who brought elegant modernism to Southern Californian suburban tract housing in the '50s and '60—passed away this past Monday, June 5.

Born in 1924 in Shanghai, China, Krisel moved with his American parents to Beverly Hills, California, in 1937. Having shown a precocious talent for architectural drawing at a young age, his father was told that the boy "had talent and ought to become an architect." So, after serving as a Chinese interpreter during World War II, that's exactly what he did. He set off for the University of Southern California where he studied architecture and landscape design.

The prolific architect was best known for the 1,200 middle-class California tract homes that he designed from 1957 to 1963, many of them being vacation or second homes. While working for the Alexander Construction Company, Krisel helped create the image of Palm Springs as a haven for midcentury-modern architecture and made a name for himself that was synonymous with "desert modernism." Later in his career, he designed many custom homes in the Bel Air and Brentwood neighborhoods of Los Angeles with his longtime business partner Dan Palmer.

Iconic California Midcentury-Modern Architect William Krisel Dies at 92 - Photo 1 of 8 - Twin Palms Estate and its classic butterfly roof by William Krisel in Palm Springs

Twin Palms Estate and its classic butterfly roof by William Krisel in Palm Springs

His signature look was defined by a crisp contemporary design, post-and-beam construction, an expansive use of glass, and open-floor plans that let the light in and blended indoor and outdoor living spaces. "Before that, affordable tract houses were tacky, low-ceiling cracker boxes with holes poked out for windows," Krisel told The LA Times in 2008.

Although he didn't design the "butterfly roof"—which was actually  invented by Le Corbusier—he popularized the silhouette, which became his trademark and a signature feature of the California suburbs. It's marked by two roof panels that meet in the middle and slope upward and outward, like butterfly wings in mid-flap.

Iconic California Midcentury-Modern Architect William Krisel Dies at 92 - Photo 2 of 8 - Twin Palms Estate by William Krisel in Palm Springs

Twin Palms Estate by William Krisel in Palm Springs


Iconic California Midcentury-Modern Architect William Krisel Dies at 92 - Photo 3 of 8 - Racquet Club Road Estates by William Krisel in Palm Springs

Racquet Club Road Estates by William Krisel in Palm Springs

Recently, his work has been seeing a resurgence in Palm Springs, where his modernist designs are being restored. There are still entire neighborhoods designed by him, and in February 2016, the city renamed a street after the architect. Last year, a book about his work, William Krisel's Palm Springs: The Language of Modernism, was published—inspiring a renewed interest in Krisel homes.

Iconic California Midcentury-Modern Architect William Krisel Dies at 92 - Photo 4 of 8 - Twin Palms by William Krisel in Palm Springs

Twin Palms by William Krisel in Palm Springs


Iconic California Midcentury-Modern Architect William Krisel Dies at 92 - Photo 5 of 8 - La Jolla Pacifica by William Krisel

La Jolla Pacifica by William Krisel


Iconic California Midcentury-Modern Architect William Krisel Dies at 92 - Photo 6 of 8 - La Jolla Scenic Heights by William Krisel

La Jolla Scenic Heights by William Krisel

Krisel is also known for designing the futuristic "House of Tomorrow" in Palm Springs. Featured in a 1962 issue of Look magazine, the three-story estate became famous five years later as the honeymoon hideout of Elvis and Priscilla Presley. 

When Dwell asked Krisel what the "House of Tomorrow" would look like today, he responded, "Reimagining the House of Tomorrow is futile; all it encompasses is taking advantage of every new gadget, from the kitchen to the bathroom to the lighting. To me, going back to more functional, comfortable, smaller places is the real challenge."

Iconic California Midcentury-Modern Architect William Krisel Dies at 92 - Photo 7 of 8 - Krisel's "House of Tomorrow" in Palm Springs

Krisel's "House of Tomorrow" in Palm Springs


Iconic California Midcentury-Modern Architect William Krisel Dies at 92 - Photo 8 of 8 - Krisel in front of one of his signature modernist designs in Palm Springs. 

Krisel in front of one of his signature modernist designs in Palm Springs.