For Donald Wexler modern architecture is simply the right way to design. One of the true fundamental Modernist, Donald Wexler began his career working in the office of Richard Neutra. It was here that he became a true pragmatist, balking at any ideological rational for modernism and instead argue that his pursuit of modern design derives from its responsiveness to dynamic environmental, technological, and material conditions. Adaptability and flexibility, prominent aspects of Wexler’s personality, are values inherent in his conception of architectural space, systems, and materials.
It was this approach to modern design that led Donald Wexler to be one of the pioneers in the exploration of pre-fabrication and the use of light steel framing for both commercial and residential. It was in the offices of Neutra that Wexler first gained interest in working with steel framing, having Neutra’s Lovell Health House considered to be the first steel-frame residence in America.
One of the first steel-framed systems produced by Wexler and his partner Richard A. Harrison consisted of light-gauge structural steel frame, steel roof decking and insulated wall panels. These elements comprised the basic structural modules which, when bolted to a concrete slab, formed the permanent structure. Since the units were lightweight and structurally independent, they could be relocated. The wall panels were designed in 8-foot modules, allowing flexibility in the placement of doors and windows, as well as the feasibility of expanding the size of the structure.
While this pre-fabricated system was used mainly for modular classrooms it was later expanded to be used with residential homes in the Palm Springs area, an area where Donald Wexler would leave his mark and cement his legacy as one of the founders of the Palm Springs modernist movement.
While there were many factors for making lightweight steel-frame extremely attractive for residential purposes, it was the need to create housing for veterans in the postwar period combined with the desire of the steel industry to break into the residential housing market that eventually made it possible and feasible to produce pre-fabricated modular steel-framed houses on a large scale. This was later backed by the insufficient wood available to meet the U.S. demand for more than one million new houses each year. It would be through the examples from the Arts and Architecture Magazine’s Case Study House program that aesthetic possibilities were demonstrated with the steel house.
The first steel-framed residential project to be attempted by Wexler and Harrison was the Bernard and Adele Perlin Residence in Los Angeles California. It was with this project that Wexler and Harrison adapted the modular steel-framed system used in their classroom design.
The completion of the Perlin residence was followed by a decision to expand the concept to develop a subdivision of thirty-five single-family steel houses in Palm Springs. These were originally known as the Calcor Prefabricated Homes. The project was to be developed in stages, between 1961-1962 seven houses were constructed through a joint research program involving Wexler and Harrison, Perlin, a sponsorship by the Columbia-Geneva Division of U.S. Steel, and local builders Alexander Homes.
Unfortunately, the remaining steel homes were never realized as the subdivision was sold to a different developer upon completion of the initial phase of the building phase. Initially the steel homes were competitive with the traditional wood framing construction. Also, the initial success of the seven steel homes were recorded as “Record House of 1963 through the publication Architectural Record. Labeled as prime examples of lower cost houses designed with good architectural skill, that combined the use of standardized components and pre-fabrication.
Characterized by the same flexibility as that of the career of Donald Wexler, these seven, 1,400 square foot houses became a testament as to what the modern subdivision could have been. Originally, two-bedroom dwellings were constructed, though these could be expanded to three or four bedroom houses. The houses were constructed of factory-built components, which enabled a crew of four men and a rig operator to install all exterior walls of three houses in an eight-hour day.
The central core of the house (a mere 9-feet wide by 36-feet long) containing the kitchen, bathrooms, and an electrical-mechanical unit was built in one piece at the factory and lowered by crane from the delivery truck to the foundation. Only the exterior walls and the core supported the roof, enabling flexibility in the arrangement and size of the rooms, as other interior partitions were non load bearing. Landscape architect David Hamilton was responsible for the design of the terraces and plant material. The houses were designed to sell between $13,000-$17,000, depending on the furnishings and exclusive of the lot which it occupied.
Architects: Donald Wexler
Location: Palm Springs, California
Project Area: 1,400 SqFt
Project Year: 1959-1962
Photographs: Juergen Nogai