How Novel: A Brand New Modernist Housing Tract in Palm Springs

Escena Forte
Escena's Forte model home.

As popular as mid-century modern homes are these days (and any realtor can tell you they’re flying off the proverbial shelf, especially here in California), they seem like a finite commodity. Modernist homes sprang up in the '50s and '60s, built by people like Joe Eichler in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, the Streng brothers in Sacramento, and George Alexander in Palm Springs. And then they stopped, giving way to seas of Spanish-tiled mcmansions.

But in Palm Springs, where mid-century modern has ruled since, well, the mid-century, a new housing tract by architect Anthony Poon and developer Andrew Adler comes with a novel concept: Make the homes in that same modernist style that people have shown they still like.

It’s called Escena, after the golf course to which it is adjacent. The Los Angeles Times posited on Friday it was the “first single-family tract house development in Southern California built in a modern architectural style since the actual Mad Men era.”

Escena Panorama
The Panorama model has a side yard that could almost act like an atrium.

The homes don’t mimic Eichlers, but they do bear many similar hallmarks. Walls of glass and enormous sliding doors bring the outside desert indoors, while straight lines and flat roofs recall the Eichlers’ stark profiles. The kitchens, separated by pony walls from dining rooms, which open onto living rooms, take their cue from the Eichlers’ informal layout. Polished concrete floors; sleek, European fixtures; and recessed lighting speak the language of modernism today. There are no atriums, but “biofuel fireplaces that deliver ambience without pollution” sound like a nice touch.

Panorama Interior
Interior of the Panorama does not skimp on the natural light.

“Ikea has weaned America on modernism,” Adler told The Times. “We think our audience is more sophisticated than our industry gives them credit for.” It’s a refreshing notion, after decades of boring design, and it’s bearing out. Escena’s completed nine-house first phase, priced at $400,000 apiece, sold out. The six-house second phase, due for completion in August, has almost sold out; and five of the nine-house third phase has sold, with phase four already in presale, The Times reports.

But a single-family tract such as Escena won’t work as well in the Bay Area. At least, not in the high-density corridors of the Peninsula and Marin. As San Mateo Eichler spacialist Glenn Sennett explained to me when I asked him in March about the tight market for Eichler homes: “We don’t live in an area where they’re building homes. You’re going to live in a home that was built 40 or 50 years ago,” because there’s just no space to build these tracts.

That’s not to say there are no suburban developments anymore. In San Mateo, for example, townhomes going up on the site of the old Bay Meadows racetrack are going for around $800,000. But they are some decidedly bland pieces of architecture, stuck in old-model “safe” design. With any luck, the success of Escena will rub off on developers around the state, and we’ll start seeing more new construction that’s not afraid to look it.