Two ponds, 13 bathrooms and 300 for dinner: the modernist fun palaces of Palm Springs

In the 1950 s, Hollywood decamped to the desert bankrolling the worlds most daring modernist designers to generate ever more experimental boltholes. Welcome to a world of Martian landing pads, clifftop Bond lairs and Flintstones sofas

After your name is checked at the electric gate by a security guard, a private road results you up into the barren, rocky hills above Palm Springs, past high-walled compounds and their secluded, sparkling pools, until you reach a lush green outcrop where a gigantic cement bird appears to have come in to land.

Its curving wings billow out above the driveway, before swooping down over a waterfall and flaring out again above a patio, large enough to seat 300 people for dinner. The concrete canopy rises to a great dome, pierced by a central oculus that frames a circle of deep blue California sky. From inside this voluminous tent, it feels like seeming up at the gaping mouth of a volcano.

If the Martians ever come to Earth, told American comedian Bob Hope, who commissioned this sprawling mansion in the 1970 s, at the least they will know where to land.

The 25,000 sq ft home, replete with six bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, two swimming pool and its own putting green, is more lavish vision ever concocted by architect John Lautner, the supreme conjuror of theatrical hideaways for the stars. Not that Lautner himself ever wanted to be associated with it. He fell out with the client after Hopes wife, Dolores, decided that his dramatic cement volumes didnt quite chime with her own chintzy savors. She commissioned an interior designer to line the bedrooms with garish floral wallpaper, encompass the floor-to-ceiling windows with New England-style wooden shutters, and fit the bathrooms with gold taps and chandeliers.

It might be part of the reason that the estate agents are having such a hard time shifting it. The Hope Estate has now been on the market for three years, its asking price slashed in half, from $50 m to $25 m.

As far as livability goes, Lautner wasnt great, tells Stewart Smith, the realtor tasked with ensnaring an ultra-high net worth purchaser preferably one who doesnt suffer from agoraphobia. Before major alterations in the 90 s, it took an age to reaching the front door from most parts of the house, while kitchen personnel had to go outside and along a circuitous ramp to reach the dining room. It is a fantastic place for entertaining, he adds, showing a video on his telephone of the Louis Vuitton fashion show is to be held recently. But the pool of people looking for a second home of this size in a resort town isnt huge.

Its likely to go to a collector one who now has the rare chance of snapping up another spectacular Lautner house right next door, a snip at $10 m. If the Hope house is the Martian landing pad, then the Elrod House, built in 1968, is the UFO itself. Famously featured as a Bond rogues lair in Diamonds Are Forever, where Sean Connery gets an acrobatic beating from bikini-clad henchgirls Bambi and Thumper, it was the result of flamboyant interior designer Arthur Elrod telling Lautner: Dedicate me what you think I should have. The slick home of a baddie plotting to destroy the world with a space laser was obviously the answer. A 20 -metre diameter concrete disc floats above the main living space, opening out on to the obligatory pool, its radial openings devoting it the look of a vast propeller, as if the whole home might lift off at any moment.

The The Elrod House, where James Bond opposed off Bambi and Thumper

These dazzlingly space-age homes are just two of the architectural jewels that are liberally scattered throughout Palm Springs, a desert outpost that became an unlikely incubator for experimental modernist architecture in the 1950 s and 60 s, when it took off as a playground for the Hollywood Rat Pack. From Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, to Liberace and Elvis, each demanded a home better than the next creating an outdoor museum of midcentury design, which now attracts thousands of pilgrims to the annual Modernism Week in February, when many of the properties are open for rare tours.

The Swiss-born Albert Frey was one of the first designers lured here from Europe in the late 1930 s, drawn to the wide open scenery after practising on the east coast. As he wrote in a letter to his former employer, Le Corbusier: It is a most interesting experience to live in a wild, savage, natural situate, but without losing linked with civilisation due to the intellectual surrounding of Palm Springs. Furthermore, the sunshine, the pure air and the simple forms of the desert generate the perfect conditions for architecture.

Frey Frey House II, which dissolves into the landscape.

His own home, built on a cliff above the town in 1964, is the unparalleled example of what became known as desert modernism, a style that capitalised on the climate, generating minimal enclosings that dissolved into the landscape. The Frey Houseseems like little more than a sheet of corrugated tin perched atop a series of glass walls, with built-in furniture deftly assembled around a gigantic boulder that crashes straight into the centre of the house, jammed between the sofa and the bed. It is emblematic of the rugged yet refined approach that came to define the Palm Springs look, where the climate and carefree atmosphere promoted a certain experimental courage, as designers were liberated from the usual practical constraints.

It was a strangely isolated petri dish of style, tells decorator Brad Dunning, who moved here in the 90 s and has actively campaigned to preserve much of its heritage ever since. These were mostly peoples second homes, so they were more willing to be adventurous. You might not want to live in a crazy angled home all the time, but its fun for the weekend.

It was a lifestyle that quickly spread beyond the celebrity elite. The Alexander Construction Company began building neighborhoods of vacation homes aimed at Americas growing post-war middle class, use a standardised floor-plan topped with alternating jaunty rooflines, styled with a distinct whiff of the Jetsons. Sold for $30,000 when they first launched in 1957 each with its own swimming pool and pair of palm trees in the garden they now change hands for$ 1m.

Suburban Suburban paradise a modernist house in Palm Springs in the 60 s. Photograph:

The designers had a sincere and modest agenda conceiving a remote suburban paradise for the lower middle class when they were built, tells architectural historian Nicholas Olsberg. Now “they il be” trophy homes for mostly gay Los Angelenos. People redo the kitchen, neutralise anything quirky, put in a few Bertoia chairs, rent them out and use them for a couple of weekend parties every year.

When Dunning first arrived, it was a different narrative. The place was a ghost town, he recalls. In my neighbourhood[ the now-desirable Racquet Club region] it was pitbulls on chains and front doorways kicked in.

The fashionable jetset largely deserted Palm Springs in the 1970 s and 80 s, since when it has reified into a rather airless golfing retirement village. Its been gay and grey for a long time, tells Dunning, but young people and celebrities are starting to come back.

The Ace Hotel opened an outpost here in 2009, exhaling trendy life into a tired 1960 s motel, while Leonardo DiCaprio acquired Dinah Shores 7,000 sq ft former house in 2014 now rentable for $4,500 a night. The Coachella music festival also brings a tsunami of young revellers to the town every spring, which inspired the Sydell group( the people behind the Ace) to transform a drab Holiday Inn into the pastel-hued Saguaro hotel, where spring break-themed pool parties keep the children dancing and the retirees at bay.

That so much period architecture remains intact here is something of road traffic accidents. The surrounding desert land was always so inexpensive that, when the modernist bungalows became unfashionable, developers simply built on plots further out. But such is the current fetish for 50 s nostalgia, there appear to be little thought given to whats coming next. A gargantuan mall and hotel complex is currently rising out of the ground in the center of the city, in the form of a crass out-of-town box, while much recent development follows the clichd Jetsons-meets-Flintstones desert vernacular, with stick-on boulders and angular canopies.

Still, perhaps its a fittingly lobotomised aesthetic for this strangely lifeless town, a place where little happens but stewing in the heat by the pool, cosseted from reality by a pristine blanket of midcentury design. As Dunning sets it: Its where LA comes to get over a hangover. And often doesnt go back.

Oliver Wainwrights travel was provided by Visit Greater Palm Springs

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