Challenging Modernism

Challenging Modernism

James Burnett’s desert landscaping and oasis-like water features harmonize seamlessly with Frederick Fisher’s new visitors center.
Dillon Diers, The Office of James Burnett

Sunnylands, the 200-acre estate outside Palm Springs commissioned by Ambassador and Mrs. Walter Annenberg and completed in 1966 by A. Quincy Jones, opened to the public on March 1. The house restoration and new visitors center, both by Frederick Fisher and Partners, will serve primarily as a high-level retreat. (Think modernist Camp David in the California desert, plus private golf course.) Fisher’s addition actually fulfills the spirit of modernism better than the original house.

Architect A. Quincy Jones, the original Sunnylands architect, best known for his Eichler tract homes, was not doctrinaire in his aesthetic approach, nor obsessed with the ways of concrete or steel. He was, however, keenly interested in crafting joyful spaces using innovative materials, if it served the user and the client. A seminal project for Jones was the 1949 Brody house in Holmby Hills. The Brodys’ decorator, Billy Haines, suggested Jones to the Annenbergs for a new home in Rancho Mirage, about 20 minutes southeast of Palm Springs. Responding to the Annenbergs’ interest in Mayan forms, Jones’ final design features a pyramidal form over the main living area. The skylight on top illuminates a Rodin sculpture placed on a rotating base set in a fountain surrounded by bromeliads. The kitchen, dressing rooms, offices, and master bedroom extend outward from this arrangement.

the Visitor Center, with living room comforts, opens to the renewed landscape. (annenberg retreat at sunnylands)

The 20,000-square-foot house, with only one bedroom for the owners, focuses on the universal space for a very high-powered couple. (Most famously, this area was transformed for New Year’s Eve galas, which President and Mrs. Reagan and other luminaries attended.) There are long, lava-stone walls, an unusual background for a staggering collection of impressionist and postimpressionist paintings. But even Jones’ bold moves were challenged by Mrs. Annenberg’s color, furniture, and decorative preferences. When Mrs. Annenberg saw Jones’ red steel columns with punched holes holding up the concrete roof, she had the vertical members painted celadon and the holes plugged with wood dowels. Decorators Billy Haines and Ted Graber (later the Reagan White House decorator) developed the style, which combined English, Chinese, and other influences.

The floor in the main area is mostly pink marble. Much of the home’s exterior is also pink, inspired by Mrs. Annenberg’s love of the pale desert light. This is Hearst Castle for the jet set. Thanks to the design team’s skill, the simple forms and grand décor reach a kind of détente. This was one of the advantages of Jones’s modernism. It could almost handle extreme Hollywood Regency.

Left to right: Fisher’s minimal addition hugs the landscape; fisher’s light touch has renewed the original house, with its eclectic furnishings and mid-century sensibilities.

Fisher, who has worked repeatedly for the Annenberg family, clearly understands the Jones oeuvre, completing infrastructural improvements with an invisible and sure hand. At the visitors center he accomplished what Jones could not at the main house: a humble, light-filled structure with a strong roof that focuses on the landscape. In this desert climate, it is important not only to see the distant mountains but also to feel sheltered from the heat.

The off-white center houses meeting, exhibit, educational, café, and retail spaces. As at the main house, many of these spaces are flexible. Visitors can always see daylight and follow the path to the garden. The famous lava stone, cut in slightly larger dimensions, covers the two walls in the main public space. The palette, however, is more subdued. The building doesn’t feel nostalgic; rather it is respectful to the Jones legacy, while being contemporary.

James Burnett’s stunning new landscape design, featuring a wide range of desert plants, was inspired by Annenberg’s legendary painting collection. Fisher’s subtle work, meanwhile, points to the enduring power of humble modernism—something A. Quincy Jones almost accomplished 45 years ago.