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Breeze blocks’ day in the sun

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Nowhere are the blocks more appreciated than Palm Springs

John Lewis Marshall

Palm Springs’s midcentury modern flair—its swooping butterfly roofs and endless walls of glass—is now nationally known. But the city is a haven for another midcentury feature that doesn’t get the widespread attention it deserves: the concrete screen block.

Prevalent in front yards across Palm Springs, concrete screen blocks have a handful of aliases—breeze blocks, ornamental blocks—that hint at their functional but decorative use as permeable fences and walls that filter sun and wind and offer privacy at homes, offices, and churches. Stacked together, the blocks form striking larger, geometric patterns, sometimes looking like overlapping circles, waves, or honeycomb.

Advances in technology, like air conditioning and building materials such as double-paned glass, have made it easy and affordable to keep homes cool without these stylized screens. But Palm Springs residents still have an affinity for them.

“In Palm Springs, there’s a high architectural IQ, and these blocks are much loved locally,” says Ron Marshall, co-author of Concrete Screen Block: The Power of Pattern, a new book on breeze blocks that will be released Friday to coincide with Modernism Week.

National Concrete Masonry Association

Marshall correlates Palm Springs residents’ appreciation for the blocks with the sheer volume of the building material in the city. Marshall and his co-author and wife, Barbara Marshall, estimate that Palm Springs is home to 40 different types of of concrete screen block patterns.

“For a city of 40,000, there’s an amazing concentration and diversity of screen block here,” he says.

The Marshalls, retired security specialists who now serve on the board of the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, spent about a decade researching the book, driving across the country hunting down screen blocks on a mission to spread the screen block love beyond the borders of Palm Springs.

It “gave us an opportunity to indulge in something we were passionate about,” Ron says.

They found there’s not much reverence for them outside of Palm Springs, and they want them to be better understood, appreciated, and, when possible, protected.

Patterned or not, sun-reducing screens have been used in Indian, Arabic, and Japanese architecture for centuries. Architect Edward Durrell Stone drew attention to the building material when he incorporated them into his 1959 design for the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India.

They rose to prominence in the Sun Belt in the late 1950s, coinciding with a surge in migration to the Southwest and the South. At a time when large glass windows were in fashion, the blocks were practical.

Entire tracts of homes built in that time incorporated patterned concrete blocks. During the 1950s and ’60s, Alexander Construction Company used screen blocks on many of its 1,200-plus moderately priced, architect-designed modernist homes, most of them designed by William Krisel.

Krisel—who referred to screen blocks as “functional ornamentation”—used the element throughout his Sandpiper condominiums in neighboring Palm Desert. Still standing today, the complex features “an extraordinary (and well-preserved) assortment of screen block patterns,” according to The Power of Pattern.

John Lewis Marshall
John Lewis Marshall
Al Troub

In Palm Springs, they took hold in part because modern houses boasted walls of glass and high ceilings, making them harder to keep cool, a problem in the hot and dry city.

Architect William F. Cody, often credited with creating some of the Palm Springs area’s most prominent modernist buildings, used an array of screen blocks liberally in his 1960 Racquet Club Cottages West (now known as “Raquet Club Garden Villas”).

John Lewis Marshall

The blocks were durable, versatile, and inexpensive to produce.

“A monumental wall of period screen block, seamlessly wedded to a building and functioning as a dramatic and beautiful brise-soleil, should be valued and understood to be representative of an innovative period in American modernist architecture,” the Marshalls write in their book.

But their popularity waned in the late 1960s and ’70s. Power of Pattern attributes the drop-off to a number of factors, including the growing reputation of concrete blocks as a material that was used to hide unattractive or sub-par architecture.

Some stunning examples of screen block, like Edward Durell Stone’s Stuart building, have been maintained, while others, like G. Thomas Harmon’s six dormitories for the University of South Carolina, have been lost forever, according to The Power of Pattern.

“It’s certainly not our intent or opinion that every single screen block be preserved,” says Barbara Marshall. “But our hope is that the book will educate the public so that informed decisions can be made.”

The Power of Pattern can be purchased from the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation’s website starting February 16.