Albert Frey, Modernist Architect, Dies
Albert Frey, the Swiss-born architect who became one of the leading California Modernists of his generation and recently enjoyed a revival of sorts with the sudden popularity of mid-century Modernist work, died Saturday night at his home in Palm Springs. He was 95.
During the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, Frey designed a series of Modernist landmarks that eventually came to define Palm Springs as a hotbed of architectural experimentation. Among them were a house for industrial designer Raymond Loewy, the Palm Springs City Hall and the Tramway gas station. The houses, in particular, were remarkable for their sleek, almost surrealistically futuristic forms and their experimental use of materials.
But Frey, generally underappreciated at the height of his career, only recently achieved international recognition, when modern design became fashionable again. In recent years, images of Frey and his houses became fixtures in fashion and design magazines. Last year, several of his buildings were designated city landmarks in Palm Springs after his design for a gas station was temporarily threatened with demolition.
Frey was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on Oct. 18, 1903. He was 25 when he began working in the Paris office of Le Corbusier, who would soon emerge as one of the great architects of the century. Le Corbusier was then at work on the seminal works of his early career. Frey spent 10 months working for Le Corbusier as one of only two paid design assistants, yet he contributed to two Modernist landmarks: the design for the Centrosoyuz building in Moscow, which was never built, and the Villa Savoye (1929-31) in Poissy, France, which, along with Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1936 Fallingwater, ranks among the most famous 20th century buildings in the world.
“That was one of the things that separates him from others of his generation, his association with Le Corbusier,” said Joseph Rosa, the author of a 1990 monograph of Frey’s work. “He was the first disciple of Le Corbusier to build in the United States.”
Frey moved to the United States in late 1930. It was a time when America was seen as the home of all that was modern, from jazz to skyscrapers to industrial and technological invention. Frey joined with A. Lawrence Kocher, a central figure on the New York cultural scene, and began what was to become an extraordinarily inventive and long-lived career. Together, the two designed the Aluminaire House, an experimental prototype for a modern house that incorporated an ingenious use of industrial materials and Corbusien notions about mass production and the open plan. (In 1987, the house was moved to the New York Institute of Technology’s Islip, New York, campus from its original site in Huntington, N.Y., where it is now under renovation.) Later, Frey worked briefly on Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone’s design for New York’s Museum of Modern Art and was largely responsible for the building’s auditorium.
But Frey never felt completely at ease in the congested, bustling metropolis, and in 1936 he moved to Palm Springs, the city with which he would be most identified. There, he produced a body of work that melded the Modernist obsession with the machine and mass production techniques with a deep sensitivity to natural surroundings.
In his design for Raymond Loewy, completed in 1947, Frey created an L-shaped house overlooking a rough desert landscape, with an ameoba-shaped swimming pool that flowed into the living room. Later projects were perhaps more Expressionist, even flamboyant, among them the Northshore Yacht Club in Salton Sea (1958-59), whose stylized facade includes protruding, porthole-like windows.
Among Frey’s greatest creations was a house that he designed for himself at a mountainside site overlooking Palm Springs, completed in 1964. The house is tiny--1,200 square feet--yet it encapsulates all of Frey’s ideas about nature and the man-made, about the poetic beauty of living a life intimately connected to the human scale.
The house was designed as a narrow glass box and is set lengthwise along the side of the mountain. Frey used the tough industrial materials that marked much of his work--steel frame, glass walls, corrugated metal roof. But the refined, Cartesian-inspired order of the house is intentionally distorted by the rugged mountain landscape. Inside, the house’s floor is divided into two levels to reflect the mountain’s steep slope, and a boulder seemingly crashes through the living room, cunningly separating living space from the lone bedroom. It is that tension--between the order of man and the order of nature--that came to define Frey’s best work.
The house established Frey’s reputation as a leading figure of the Modernist avant-garde. Yet its immediate ambitions were more humble. This was still the postwar building boom, the architectural photographer Julius Shulman noted. “Young married couples could afford to build small houses,” Shulman said, “And this little house had a million ideas. He had designed space for everything, the compact kitchen, the bathroom was oriented towards the morning light--everything he did was meticulously oriented towards design. It was the efficiency of the Swiss mind.”
In many ways, the image of Frey became entwined with the image of that house. High above the city, Frey, a vegetarian and nature lover who said that the clean mountain landscape reminded him of his native Switzerland, would regularly do his yoga exercises or wander outside to feed quail, squirrels and lizards.
“He was gentle,” Shulman said. “He did not want to produce big, glamorous images of his work like [his contemporary Richard] Neutra, for example. He was a quiet, nonaggressive person. That’s maybe why people didn’t know his work until later years.”
By the mid-'80s, Frey was semiretired, although he continued to consult on local architectural projects, including some design work for the Smoketree Ranch, a somewhat conventional, ranch-style residential community in Palm Springs. Nearly a decade passed before Palm Springs was rediscovered. Suddenly, it was touted as the West Coast’s answer to Miami’s Art Deco tradition. Worshipful students and curious reporters began to make the pilgrimage to Frey’s mountainside house for interviews. His house was repeatedly used for fashion shoots.
“He enjoyed the activity,” Shulman said. “The makeup, the jewelry, the young models--Albert was watching all this and would laugh very sheepishly. But it was a great thing for his life.”
Frey is survived by a sister, Emma, and his longtime companion, Jean Farrar. Services will be held at Welwood Murray Cemetery, Alejo Drive, in Palm Springs on Monday at 11 a.m.