A Feeling of Oneness With the World: On the House of Dr. Franz Alexander


Walter S. White, Dr. Franz Alexander House, Palm Springs, CA, 1955, photograph of street facade, c. 1955. Walter S. White papers, Architecture and Design Collection; Art Design & Architecture Museum, UC Santa Barbara. © UC Regents.

by Volker M. Welter

Following a map for a driving tour along Palm Spring’s mid-twentieth century Modernist homes and buildings, I had just peeked at Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House, the rebellious sibling from 1947 of Frank Lloyds Wright’s Fallingwater House in Pennsylvania, which was begun for the same client in 1935. Figuring out on the map where to drive to next, a house whose owner was identified as Dr. Franz Alexander caught my attention. I had come across that name some years earlier in connection with my research into Ernst L. Freud, the architect-son of Sigmund Freud. Rumour had it that Ernst Freud designed Alexander’s consulting room when both lived in Berlin in the 1920s, though I could never verify that. I decided to take a look at the house that carried the same name as the Austrian-Hungarian psychoanalyst.

Both the Dr. Franz Alexander House and the Kaufmann House are located in the Little Tuscany area of northern Palm Springs. As the Italianate name suggests, houses in that part of town tend to dress up in Mediterranean revival styles, though interspersed are many mid-twentieth-century Modernist homes. The Kaufmann House was one of the earliest, it sits just at the foot of Mount Jacinto; a location that recalls today primarily the once empty, flat landscape which made Neutra challenge the local building code by placing a look-out pavilion on top of the one-storey building.

The Alexander House is much further up the hill. Conveniently situated for a drive-by architecture fan, its location at a street fork allows one to view two facades. Towards the street that climbs up from below, the house displays a narrow end of its rectangular volume which stretches into the depth of the plot. The site gently slopes, thus along the street the house is one storey high, whereas the opposite garden façade is two storeys tall with the main living areas occupying the upper floor. A series of V-shaped vertical supports rhythmically structures the garden façade. Each V is formed by two inclined steel posts with the outward leaning ones supporting a balcony across the entire length of the house. The other, inward rising posts hold up the concave steel beams of the roof which, in turn, rest with their other ends on shorter steel posts on top of a concrete block masonry wall.

Photograph by Volker M. Welter, 2013

All living spaces are fitted into a wooden rectangular box which was originally lifted off the ground with a stair, giving access to the upper level roughly half way down the length of the house. Above that box the curved roof hovers. It is made from slender boards, tightly stacked in an upright position with their narrow sides creating a regular pattern on the concave ceiling. Underneath this wooden sail, a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows looks into the garden and floods the interior with light. Down below, a circular swimming pool balances the rectangularity of the house. While its appearance is more complex than the cubic clarity of Neutra’s house, the lines of the Alexander House are sharp: the geometry of its composition clean, and the logic of its structure obvious.

These rational qualities of the Walter S. White-designed house are probably what attracted the original owner. In his autobiographical writings Alexander often writes about how he was torn during his youth in the Budapest of the early twentieth century between the humanities with their more speculative inquiries into the world, and the natural sciences with their empirical, fact-based methodologies. Alexander’s father, a philosopher, and an uncle, a chemical engineer, represented these two sides within the family. That Alexander initially studied medicine only to then take up Freudian psychoanalysis is another expression of these parallel interests within his own mind.

The large, upper-level balcony of White’s design offers stunning views beneath a blue sky across the city of Palm Springs and into the expanse of the Coachella Valley. This architectural feature closely resembles the setting of one of the earliest personal childhood memories the psychoanalyst mentioned in his book The Western Mind in Transition—An Eyewitness Story (1960).

New York Palace, Budapest, 1900

Born in Budapest in 1891, Alexander grew up in the ‘New York Palace’, an eclectic stone pile designed between 1890 and 1894 by architect Alajos Hauszmann for the New York Life Insurance Company. His first playground was the broad corridors on the fifth floor whose one side gave access to the flats, while the other looked over a stone balustrade into a vast interior courtyard. Alexander recalled how sometimes the ‘luxurious wide marble’ corridor suddenly transformed into ‘metaphysical daydreams about the universe. In these fantasies, the world appeared to me as a large pale blue balloon filled with fluid; it was a finite universe with a curved space, not too unlike that of contemporary cosmologists … It was truly metaphysical. I spent hours alone in the corridor spinning out these cosmological fantasies’. Later, a family holiday at the Baltic Sea reminded Alexander of these daydreams, for ‘standing for the first time at the shore of the ocean, I clearly recognized the relatedness of this sensation to my fantasies about the pale blue universe: a feeling of oneness with the world, a paradoxical combination of loneliness and belonging.’

Alexander identifies this experience as the ‘oceanic feeling’ which Sigmund Freud discussed in a highly critical manner in Civilization and its Discontents. Alexander was more accepting of this emotion which for him seems to stand for both the wish to understand the wonders of the world since his childhood, and the path of humanistic inquiries that he had rejected, temporarily, when he decided on medicine as his first profession. The home that Alexander owned in Palm Springs can be understood as evoking comparable notions of making its inhabitant feel at home in the world while at the same time opening up the universe.

Walter S. White, Dr. Franz Alexander House, Palm Springs, CA, 1955, photograph of garden façade with the circular swimming pool, c. 1955. Walter S. White papers, Architecture and Design Collection; Art Design & Architecture Museum, UC Santa Barbara. © UC Regents.

When Alexander received an invitation during a lecture tour in the U.S. in 1930 to become one of the first Freudian psychoanalysts to work in the New World, he decided to leave Europe for good. At that time, Alexander and his wife, the Venice-born artist Anita Venier Alexander (1895-1984), were living in Berlin where Alexander trained and worked at the Berlin Psychoanalytical Policlinic (with an interior designed by Ernst Freud). Initially teaching at the University of Chicago, Alexander established the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis in 1932. By the mid 1950s, he relocated to Los Angeles where he was affiliated with Mount Sinai Hospital and various other professional institutions.

In a slim volume of remembrances of Alexander, who passed away in Palm Springs in 1964, Dr. Therese Benedek, a fellow Hungarian-born psychoanalyst, reminisced about how America was for Alexander a ‘new frontier, the loosening of the grip of the past’, which was so firm in “relatively static Europe’, and the ‘promise of limitless possibilities.’ Like so many Americans, Alexander found his sense of frontier at the West Coast. In 1955, he claimed to be moving to California for reasons of weather; Benedek doubts that explanation as a rationalization of Alexander’s ‘desire to expand his youth’ in California, to ‘recreate [there] an experience of the past.’

The latter wish had probably already materialized by 1936 when the Alexanders built their first Californian home in La Jolla after Mrs. Alexander had spontaneously purchased the plot while travelling in southern California. The Spanish revival style house was designed by Cliff May, an architect whose early houses drew on California’s eighteenth-century Spanish colonial past, before he popularized the 1950s ranch style homes, which took inspirations from the nineteenth-century westward expansion of the U.S. While the site of the La Jolla house on a cliff above the ocean is comparable to the setting of Alexander’s daydream from the Baltic Sea, May’s romanticizing of the past is difficult to reconcile with Alexander’s forward looking view of the American frontier. Acknowledging the closure of the old, geographic frontier, Alexander argues in Our Age of Unreason (1942) for new ‘frontiers of the intellect and phantasy, science, art, and art of living’ which will ‘offer to all opportunities for self expression, courage, pride, and persistence.’

Photograph by Volker M. Welter, 2013

The notion of new frontiers influenced Alexander’s decision to build his new home in Palm Springs. Conveniently located closer to Los Angeles than La Jolla, the desert town nevertheless offered a sense of isolation. Once a consequence of life at the frontier, a certain isolation had now become a condition because ‘only one who can escape into the desert … can save his art in our days’; the words of his father Alexander cited approvingly in The Western Mind in Transition. Alexander’s characterisation in Our Age of Unreason of the new frontiers’ settlers as ‘explorers of the unknown forces of nature … the masters of the creative phantasy who make life more enjoyable for everyone’ may shed some light on his choice of architect for his mid-twentieth-century home.

In the late 1940s, Walter S. White left Los Angeles to set up shop in the desert as a designer and builder of homes. White had picked up how to build from his father, who owned a construction business in San Bernardino, California, where White was born in 1917. He honed his technical design skills in the drafting office of a Los Angeles airplane company turned defence contractor during World War II, and he perfected his knowledge of architecture when temporarily working for noted colleagues such as Rudolf Schindler and Harwell Hamilton Harris. Still, because of the lack of formal architectural training, White was forced to sign his drawings with ‘Walter S. White, Jr., designer not an architect’ for many years. This, together with his habit of occasionally working alongside the crews constructing his buildings easily reinforced any possible impression of White as a self-made, frontier architect who built houses in order to create homes.

Catering to a growing market of dwellers who wanted to live permanently in the desert rather than just temporarily for the weekends or the winter season, White’s early designs are modest homes with pitched roofs on steel posts underneath which concrete block masonry delineates T or L-shaped floor plans. These homes could grow with changing family needs and financial means, and were often intended for self-building. When White worked on larger projects for clients such as Alexander, he liked to experiment with materials and construction. Sometimes he developed new methods of building for which he subsequently filed patents, thus raising the perception that his designs were at the cutting edge of architectural progress.

Walter S. White, Dr. Franz Alexander House, Palm Springs, CA, 1955, street façade pencil drawing with Letraset, c. late 1950s. Walter S. White papers, Architecture and Design Collection; Art Design & Architecture Museum, UC Santa Barbara. © UC Regents.

The wood and steel roof of the Alexander House was a variation of an earlier experimental patented roof and wall construction or which a patent was pending. The curve of the roof on the Palm Springs house was a new experiment. White argued that it would help to passively heat and cool the interior; to soundly integrate his houses into the desert environment was a goal of his from early on. White’s characterisation of the Alexander house as a prototype of an environmentally sensitive desert home may have triggered the psychoanalyst’s scientific curiosity. Other elements of the house appear to be abstractions of the circumstances of the ‘oceanic feelings’ that Franz Alexander had experienced during his childhood, but the one that lingers is the view from the balcony: the equivalent of the gaze across the Baltic Sea, the azure dome of the sky recalling the large blue balloon, and the interior with its concave ceiling as a version of the finite universe with its curved space. In short, the desert house was the perfect setting for Alexander’s pursuit of both the scientific and the humanistic inquiries into humanity and its fate; a lifelong quest that had begun in Budapest and was far from over when Alexander settled in Palm Springs.

About the Author:

Volker M. Welter PhD (Univ Edinb) is an architectural historian who has lived, studied, and worked in Germany, Scotland, and England and is now a Professor at the Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), where he teaches Californian and European modern architectural history and theory. His publications include Biopolis-Patrick Geddes and the City of Life (Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press, 2002), Ernst L. Freud, Architect: The Case of the Modern Bourgois Home (Oxford/New York: Berghahn, 2012), and articles in such journals such as Cabinet,  Israel Studies, Manifest, and Oxford Art Journal.  He is currently completing a book entitled Tremaine Houses: A Study in mid-twentieth-century Patronage of Modern American Architecture, and is preparing an exhibition on the Palm Desert architect Walter S. White to be shown at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at UCSB in 2015.