In the mid-20th century, the mountain-ringed desert landscape of Palm Springs became a mecca for Modernist design, many of those commissions fueled by well-to-do and celebrity clients. Top Southern California architects built here, including Neutra and Lautner. But an important figure whose work remained unrepresented was Ray Kappe, a Los Angeles architect of formidable talent, who sometimes flew under the radar. Finally, last year—about a half-century overdue and almost two years after his death, at age 92—Palm Springs became home to a Kappe house.
The project was a collaborative effort between Ray and his son Finn Kappe, a Santa Monica–based architect. The two had successfully joined forces before. This time, “Ray only did three drawings—a schematic plan, section, and elevation, all on yellow trace, but with a clear vision for the entire project. The DNA was all there,” says Finn, who worked out the details, developed the final documents, and managed the construction, which was well under way before his father’s death. “Ray had a consistent language of architecture—and, it turns out, I’m pretty fluent in ‘Kappe.’ ”
The entry facade (top), along the road, is more opaque than the glassy rear elevation (above), with expansive views out. Photo © James Butchart, click to enlarge.
The senior Kappe had contributed significantly to architecture, both as a designer and educator. He was founding director of two architecture schools: at Cal Poly Pomona, followed by SCI-Arc. As a practitioner, he produced primarily single-family and multiunit dwellings, earning a reputation for marrying design with landscape and topography. His best-known work is perhaps the 1968 house for his own family, in Los Angeles’s Pacific Palisades neighborhood. A deft composition of horizontal and vertical planes that seem to slip past one another without quite touching, the building steps down a challenging slope. “Part of my father’s method, and his brilliance,” says Finn, “was his facility for designing in section, for visualizing and shaping space before he even drew a line.”
The Palm Springs house carries forward many of Ray’s earlier ideas. The rugged, inclined, half-acre site is in Desert Palisades, set against the eastern flanks of the San Jacinto Mountains, with views of Chino Canyon and downtown Palm Springs. In this gated community, a 117-acre expanse, modest winding roadways defer to the character and contours of the boulder-strewn desert landscape, an alluvial fan. Developers Ed Freeman and Joe Weston subdivided the property into 110 high-end residential lots (half the number zoning allows), interspersing permanently open parcels among buildable ones offered for individual purchase. A key goal, says Freeman, was to “touch lightly on the terrain, in harmony with the natural setting.” Biased toward low-slung Modernism, the design guidelines include requirements for flat roofs, earth tones, and native landscaping; an 18-foot height limit; severe restrictions on site grading; and bans on perimeter property enclosures.
Photos © Lance Gerber
In 2015, Freeman sought out Ray Kappe, meeting him for the first time at his 1968 home and studio. Ray and Finn visited Desert Palisades and eventually began work on the first house there, which the developers built on spec as a model home, setting a high standard for future designs.
The resulting 3,200-square-foot single-story structure, clad in weathering-steel, echoes the desert palette. From the road, a plank-like concrete entry bridge leads to a front door of Japanese-style charred cedar. Perched on low concrete foundation walls, the house seems to float above the terrain. An ancient ravine, or dry gully, crosses diagonally through the site, right under the building, seemingly entering through a cleft in the uphill foundations and reemerging in spa and pool spillovers, toward the lot’s far end.
As in Kappe’s own home, multiple split levels follow the downward slope, gesturing to the landscape. The partially exposed structural system, a nod to Midcentury Modernism, is post and beam—but updated with tubular steel, instead of timber, to withstand the harsh desert climate (a feature that also allows for view-capturing expanses of glass). To achieve cantilevered roof rims only 6 inches deep—evocative of midcentury wood roofs, which were much thinner than is typically feasible with timber today—Finn capped the building instead with efficient and precisely detailed layers that include compact rigid insulation and corrugated metal decking. “That thinness was important visually,” he explains. “Ray believed a line needed to look like a line, and not end up nearly 2 feet thick.” Deep overhangs contribute to passive cooling, as does the under-house capture of cool air and location of all HVAC ducts.
Interior teak and tubular-steel structural members play against the desert palette. Photos © Lance Gerber
For privacy and protection from western sun, much of the entry facade is opaque, but the southeast-facing rear elevation—with shaded floor-to-ceiling glazing and sliding glass doors—opens to panoramic views. Against that backdrop, a “great room”—combining living, dining, and kitchen areas on different levels—steps down toward the outdoor pool deck, which, in turn, descends to a firepit and other gathering areas. Within the fluid living spaces, multiple ceiling (or roof) heights correspond to floor-level changes. Giving the overhead planes a floating quality, bands of clerestory glazing separate ceilings from many of the walls, even among the three bedrooms. Further enhancing spatial and visual continuity, materials and planes extend from indoors out, including the concrete floors, polished inside but broom-finished on the patios.
So far, other houses at Desert Palisades are few and far between, but more are under way. Meanwhile, the Kappe legacy is already finding new life here: Inspired by the model home (now on the market for $5.675 million), new clients have commissioned Finn to design a customized house in a similar spirit, right nearby.
Click drawing to enlarge
Palm Springs, California
Gross Square Footage:
3,200 square feet.
Ed Freeman & Joe Weston
Pinnacle View, LLC
Kappe Architects, 801 D Street, San Rafael, California 94901 415.457.7801 www.kappearchitects.com
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Ray Kappe FAIA- Design lead, Finn Kappe-Project Architect, Josh Kenin- Digital Modeling, Tom Szymanski- Production and Renderings.
Reiss, Brown, Ekmekji (structural); MSA Consulting (Civil Engineer); MRC Engineering (m/e/p)
Russell McDonald (landscape); Alternative Energy Systems (energy)
Van Vliet and Company