Lowering the Bar

Lowering the Bar

By Dave Weinstein
A modernist facade can't keep some developments from suffering from that very American malady: sprawl.

Mid-century-modern tract homes have long been coveted by lovers of all things retro, many of whom began gentrifying neighborhoods of them in the mid-1990s. By the early aughts’ skyrocketing prices proved too high. So why not build brand-new, affordable, modern 1950s-style homes?

The result of this thinking is B-Bar-H Ranch, a neighborhood of about 50 houses in five jaunty designs based on the 1950s Alexander homes of Palm Springs. But despite their retro styling, the homes look neither authentically 1950s nor truly of our time. The development is an aesthetic orphan, in dialogue with neither its idols nor its contemporaries. The B-Bar-H has turned "modern" into just another picture-book style. Like the neo-Tudors or neo-Victorians still erected today, B-Bar-H’s commitment to modernism is little more than skin-deep.

To construct affordable homes, Modern Living Spaces, which built B-Bar-H, had to find affordable land. That meant leaving Palm Springs and building on a windswept, 100-year floodplain in an unincorporated area near Desert Hot Springs, where the local landmark is an immense wind farm and swirling dust storms are a seasonal event.

Desert modernism of the 1950s, of course, was never about infill or ecological living. But that was then. Modernism today needs to embrace sustainability, just as its Bauhaus forebears made do with few materials and limited resources after World War I. Modern neighborhoods that sprawl into nearly raw desert signal a clear break from the ethos of the architectural pioneers they seek to emulate. When style is more about pastiche than about innovation, what’s the use?

Time capsules angling to cash in on a look are modern design at its worst, addressing neither the desires, the aesthetics, nor the needs of the day. 


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