The local environment inspired architect James Cioffi to conceive a design for the 175,000-square-foot Smoke Tree Commons community/power center that fits into the context of Palm Springs, Calif., and meet the needs of tenants and customers alike. The design for the project adopts the canons of modernism to suit the desert climate, landscape and lifestyle while limiting light pollution and without sacrificing the desert views for the surrounding community.

The project’s aesthetic has roots in the region’s architectural history. During the middle of the 20th century, a new style—Desert Modernism—came into being inspired by the mountains and desert sands of Coachella Valley. Notable for its use of glass, deep overhangs, natural and manmade materials, and indoor/outdoor spaces, Desert Modernism embraced mountain views and the area’s warm climate, defining a lifestyle of elegant informality. This architectural style was “re-discovered” after the formation in 1999 of the non-profit Palm Springs Modern Committee, which is dedicated to maintaining the heritage of modern architecture in Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley.

At Smoke Tree Commons, the shapes and colors of the major tenant buildings take additional cues from the desert mountains to the south, and the angled walls and textured planters break down the “box” and help develop a human scale at the sidewalk level.
One of the tenets of Desert Modernism is to preserve the panorama of brown rock peppered with ever-changing shadows and the unexpected desert plants that turn this great natural wall into a tapestry of texture and color. This became the pallet of colors for the project. The smaller shop buildings clustered along Highway 111 feature idiosyncratic rooflines: flat, slanted or butterfly shaped roofs, three-quarter high wall partitions and finishes simulating two-tone wood, and the use of decorative stacked block.

Albert Frey’s designed minimalist houses “like tents staked in the desert”. This inspiration can be seen in the use of the fabric structures which not only inject a bit of whimsy into the center, but also provide shaded areas for pedestrians and dramatic night time images. The entry canopy at Walgreen’s, the focal point at the north east corner of the project, has been nicknamed by the locals as “the ship of the desert”.
Native plants were used in non-traditional ways, placed in rows and groups in a deliberate attempt to reinforce the geometries of the site and buildings. Oversized round dish planters further enhanced this.

Project Name: Smoke Tree Commons
Location: Palm Springs, Calif.
Square Footage: 174,499 square feet
Principal Design Architect: Cioffi Architect
Owner: Donahue Schriber Realty Group L.P.
Building Architects: Liedenfrsot/Horowitz & Associates
Structural Engineer: Ken Okamoto & Associates
Civil Engineer: DRC Engineering
Landscape Architect: Cummings Curley and Associates
Signage: Architectural Design & Signs
General Contractors: Mercer Construction, Primus Contracting Group
Product Suppliers: Visionnaire, Architectural Area Lighting, Angelus Block, Dal-Tile, Standard Structures, US Aluminum, Sherwin Willaims, Dunn Edwards Paints, Quickcrete, AEP Span Metal Roofing, Fabritec Structures, Smith & Hawken