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Modernism and more: what's new in Palm Springs for 2020

An oasis of architecture in the desert, the California city is throwing open its doors for a special celebration this spring.

Published 8 Dec 2019, 07:00 GMT, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 05:13 GMT
Sunnylands mansion, Palm Springs
Sunnylands, located in Rancho Mirage, will be one of the many modernism landmarks open to the public during Modernism Week 2020 (13-23 February).
Photograph by Mark Davidson

Nowhere does retro like Palm Springs. Popularised in the 1930s by Hollywood stars looking to escape the studios, it’s a time capsule of modernist architecture: low-rise, streamlined houses; kidney-shaped pools; gardens of palm trees and cactuses, and interiors either bursting with colour or as simple and muted as the outside. And while mid-century architecture abounds in this Californian city, Palm Springs Modernism Week (13-23 February 2020) is where it all comes together.

2020 marks the festival’s 15th year, but this isn’t just a celebration of modernism; it’s a rare chance to get inside buildings rarely open to the public, now expanded throughout the Coachella Valley and Greater Palm Springs. Expect the openings to be special: confirmed events include tours of Sunnylands, the powder-pink estate in Rancho Mirage, built as a ‘Camp David of the West’ — presidents from Eisenhower to Obama have stayed there, and even the Queen once popped in for lunch.

Other highlights are tours of the Frey House II, which modernist architect Albert Frey wedged into the mountains above Palm Springs, boulders erupting through the glass walls. And for those who dream of life on the road, there’ll be a show of vintage Airstreams, caravans and RVs. There’ll also be a programme of events like Nod to Mod — a mid-century-inspired dinner accompanied by music, TV shows and commercials of the 1940s to 1960s — and a modernism yard sale. Best check your baggage allowance before you go.    

While you're there

Back to the future
Palm Springs’ finest old-timey hotel, the Ingleside Inn and its thoroughly nostalgic restaurant, Melvyn’s, have been taken over by its neighbour, the trendy Avalon Hotel & Bungalows, following a huge refurb. Guests can nod off in stylishly vintage rooms and tuck into the hotel’s classic dishes, including steak Diane and chicken pot pie. 

Wine on tap
A highly un-American, 85-strong list of wines by the glass, plus 1950s-themed cocktails and craft beer — V Wine Lounge, which opened in September, is a cut above the rest here. A spin-off of West Hollywood’s trendy V Wine Room, it’s laid-back, deliciously retro and the place to
go when only a huge cheese platter and a glass of red will do.

Bagels galore
Another Los Angeles import is Wexler’s Deli, which started as a stall in Downtown LA’s foodie hub, Grand Central Market, and has now opened a location in the trendy Arrive hotel. The rye bread comes from their LA bakery, and their humungous piles of pastrami are brined, smoked and slow-cooked on site. Something sweet? Try the alcoholic snowcones. 

Festival fever
Forget Coachella; the festival du jour is the Bombay Beach Biennale, which takes place each spring. Like a small-scale Burning Man, it’s a boho collective of music, art and philosophy, held at the Salton Sea — the 1950s fake ‘beach’ resort that was later abandoned. Once-forsaken buildings become galleries and event spaces for everything from opera to film screenings. 2020 dates TBC. 

Follow @juliathelast

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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