Albert Frey

Architect, United States
Albert Frey holds a unique place in the history of 20th century Californian architecture
as an uncompromising modernist of the European school, a pupil of Le Corbusier, and an
exponent of high-tech and rationalist architecture who lived out his long life in the hills
above Palm Springs, California.
Frey spent the early part of his career working for Belgian modernist architects Jules
Eggericx and Raphael Verwilghen in Brussels, where he was involved with rebuilding
housing following the Great War. He returned to Switzerland in 1927 to work for the firm
of Leuenberger, Fluckiger before moving to Paris in 1928 to work for Le Corbusier and
Pierre Jeanneret for nine months. In Le Corbusier’s atelier he sat between Charlotte
Perriand and Jose Louis Sert, working on the Centrosoyus Administration Building in
Moscow (1933) and the Villa Savoye (1931) at Poissy. Here he was introduced to Sweet’s Catalogue and,
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like Richard Neutra before him, found himself drawn to the American dream of a
technological future.
Upon his arrival in New York in September of 1930, Frey began working with A.
Lawrence Kocher, architect and editor of Arch itectural Record, in a partnership that would last until 1935.
The most significant building of Frey’s early career was the exhibition house designed
for the 1931 Allied Arts and Building Products exhibition at the Grand Central Palace in
New York. Called the “Aluminaire House” because of its ribbed aluminum cladding and
its qualities of lightness and airiness, it was strongly influenced by Le Corbusier’s
Maison Citrohan (1920) projects and Maison Cook at Boulonge-sur-Seine (1926–27), as
well as Frey’s own investigations of mass housing, as evidenced in schemes published in
Architectural Record in April 1931. The aluminum- and steel-framed house, with its innovative floor and
wall construction, was subsidized by subscriptions Frey raised from manufacturers and
erected in ten days. Following the exhibition it was bought by the architect Wallace
Harrison, disassembled in six hours and moved to his estate on Long Island. It has now
been rebuilt at the New York Institute of Technology, at Islip, Long Island.
In 1934 Frey traveled to Palm Springs, California, to supervise the building of the
Kocher-Samson office building for Kocher’s brother, a medical doctor. While there he
met John Porter Clark and, terminating his partnership with Kocher, began working with
Clark in a partnership that continued almost uninterrupted until 1957. A brief interlude in
New York in 1938–39, where he worked on the Museum of Modern Art for Philip L
Goodwin, and on a design for the Swiss Pavilion for the World’s Fair with Kocher that is
reproduced most memorably in his book, In Search of a Liv ing Architectu re.
Frey’s philosophy was evinced in the first house he built for himself in 1940.
Assembled out of industrial-type materials, Frey House 1 (Palm Springs, 1940) was a
simple cubic cabin with extending wall planes and an over-reaching, flat roof probing the
landscaped desert around it. These ideas were further explored in the Hatton House and
Guest House (1945) and the Loewy House (1947), all in Palm Springs. The extension of
Frey House 1 in 1947 and again in 1953, with the introduction of bright, electric colors
and profiled metal and ribbed fiberglass cladding, gave it a noticeably futuristic quality
while at the same time incorporating it within the planting and water pools of its natural
site. Although an experimental house, its idiosyncrasies were a direct responses to the
particularities of its desert condition.
With Clark he built a number of crisp, more conventionally modernist buildings,
including elementary and secondary schools in Palm Springs and Needles, and hospitals
at Banning and Palm Springs. These long, low, planar buildings spread out against the
desert landscape, external circulation, play or convalescing areas taking advantage of the
climate. Joined in partnership in 1952 by Robson Chambers, Clark and Frey built the
Palm Springs City Hall (1957) using a palette of traditional and industrial materials. The
design was sensitive to both function and climate, the administrative offices forming a
low, steelscreened T-shaped building with the council chamber expressed as a jagged,
masonry block at one end. Concrete and steel portes cochère, one circular and the other square, marked
the respective entrances to the council chamber and the city hall, the circular form of the
former corresponding to the void within the latter.
Frey House 2 (1965) was built on a mountainside on axis with and overlooking the
centre of Palm Springs, the City Hall visible in the distance. Raised on a concrete-block
podium which incorporated the car port below and the swimming pool above, the house
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appeared to be no more than a glass and steel lean-to cabin, carelessly decaying in the
desert landscape. The architecture is literally subsumed in Nature as a giant rock pushes
through a glass wall, separating the sleeping from the living area and providing, by way
of its mass, a thermal regulator.

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