Meet The Architect Who Helped Bring Modernism To The Masses Nearly 60 years ago, William Krisel did everything he could to break the monotony of tract housing. In the process, he proved that modernism could be both livable and affordable.
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Meet The Architect Who Helped Bring Modernism To The Masses

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Meet The Architect Who Helped Bring Modernism To The Masses

Meet The Architect Who Helped Bring Modernism To The Masses

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When you think of tract homes, you might think of cookie-cutter designs where the houses all look practically identical. But not all tract homes are the same.

Architect William Krisel did everything he could to break the monotony - with vaulted ceilings and butterfly roofs. Now he's being honored by the place whose bold and colorful look he helped define nearly 60 years ago. We're talking about Palm Springs, Calif.

Matt Guilhem of member station KVCR has the story of the architect who brought modernism to the masses.

MATT GUILHEM, BYLINE: The minute you see them, you're taken back to another era. There are the distinctive angled roofs, high windows, desert color schemes with pops of rich gold or vibrant blue. Lots of glass and elegantly simple lines are the signature of all the houses in the Twin Palms tract. One of those homes belong to Heidi Creighton. It's...

HEIDI CREIGHTON: A Krisel-designed home. And it would be classified as a model A3 sunflap flat roof tract house.

GUILHEM: She knows what she's got. Sitting in Creighton's living room, if you didn't see the flat screen TV, you'd swear it's 1962. The couch is angular and low to the ground. The wooden coffee table is kidney-shaped and resting on spindle legs. On an end table are glasses, a cocktail shaker and olive picks in their own stand.

CREIGHTON: If you walked into my house, you would see a light-infused, glass house with very little distinction between the inside and the outside of the house. Materials are simple, and you're happy to be here. It feels good.

GUILHEM: In other words, it's consummate William Krisel. At 91, the architect himself lives in a condo in Beverly Hills with his wife of more than 60 years, Corrine. Naturally, the condo is in a building he designed.

WILLIAM KRISEL: At one point in my practice, of the 10 largest home builders in the United States, seven of the 10 were my clients. And I have had built, from my designs, over 40,000 living units, and that's more than any other architect that I know of.

GUILHEM: While his work is spread across the West, it's Krisel's work in Palm Springs that helped define the ways modernism could be livable and affordable. He notably designed several housing tracts for the Alexander Construction Company, which appreciated the way the homes could be built economically and with almost assembly-line efficiency.

Back in Twin Palms, literally just around the corner from Heidi Creighton, lives realtor Chris Menrad. Sitting poolside in the backyard of his agave green house with a roof resembling the swoop of a checkmark, he echoes Creighton's enthusiasm for the architect's design.

CHRIS MENRAD: There's a very big connection with the outdoors. There's lots of windows, lots of clerestory windows, so you're always kind of looking up and out. And you're always aware of what's going on outside - weather, sunlight.

GUILHEM: Both Menrad and Creighton, who co-edited a new book on the architect, are picking up on the language of modernism. Like any language, Krisel says it has basic tenets.

KRISEL: That a house is more than just a shelter; that it is a way of improving your way of life; that it can open up a whole new concept in your feeling every day; that the indoors and the outdoors are inseparable; and that the climate and the flora and fauna and ecology are all encompassed in making your decisions on how to create this space.

GUILHEM: Krisel is also a landscape architect. He had control over all design aspects. Plants were selected for shape and color. Paint schemes and rooflines were varied so no two were too close together. He varied the setbacks on each house to break the uninterrupted wall of homes found in most tract developments. Despite this meticulous attention to detail, many still consider them just tract homes, says Chris Menrad, the realtor.

MENRAD: He was definitely sort of forgotten. Locals here that bought his houses really were passionate about them. And people here, really, just sort of flocked to his designs and celebrated them.

GUILHEM: When Menrad began restoring his house in 1999, he was the exception. Now, William Krisel says houses he designed throughout the Coachella Valley are being snapped up.

KRISEL: One by one, I could find a house that somebody had restored properly - and then another one. And now it's like a virus. Everybody in Palm Springs wants to do it.

GUILHEM: Actually, they've been fans for a while. For the last decade, the city has celebrated its architectural heritage during Modernism Week. At this year's event, it's renaming a street in honor of the once-overlooked 91-year-old architect.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Guilhem.

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