Robert Imber recalls coming to Palm Springs with his parents during much of his childhood, but recalls nothing about the architecture.
Now he can’t stop talking about it.
Imber is the best ambassador of architecture that Palm Springs could ever hope for. He runs his own tour service, Palm Springs Modern Tours, which he began when he moved to the city full-time in 2000. His tours are limited to six people — that’s about max for the new Toyota van he uses to take people around — which also clues you in that the tours are very personal, chocked full of anecdotes and details about the people and history that created what is now a midcentury maven for locals and tourists alike.
“For me, it was all about education, architecture, and reaching out to the public,” Imber explains. “I’m not an architect; I’m not a scholar. My outreach is to everyday people. I get the architects, I get the scholars, and I get the erudite and the sophisticated, but I get everyday people who just care or have some interest or growing interest. That’s me.”
VIDEO: Discover what is one of Robert Imber’s favorite architectural buildings in Palm Springs.
However, his biggest contributions to promoting architecture and Greater Palm Springs have nothing to do with making a living. He is one of the original founders of the Palm Springs Modern Committee where his passion is education, creating a platform for aspiring architectural students to receive college scholarships.
Together, along with his signature hat, they have made Imber one of the most recognized advocates of architectural preservation in the desert. During Modernism Week Fall Preview Weekend, he will be feted with a Walk of Stars ceremony Saturday (Oct. 22) where his star will be among the modern architectural Gods he worships, including Richard Neutra, E. Stewart Williams, and Donald Wexler.
Imber took some time recently to talk about his connections to architecture, and how it has become a major tourist event in Palm Springs.
Have you always been a fan of architectural, or did it develop later in life?
Robert Imber: I’ve never really studied architecture. I was just born loving architecture. Anytime I would be any place that there would be anything remotely architectural, I respond to it and I need to learn about it, or at least appreciate it if time doesn’t allow. Even when I travel … When I was in Oregon this last trip, there was a little town I went to called West Linn. I knew it was historic, and I went with a friend to lunch there. I knew we were in a historic place. I was just compelled before I left to go back. I found the original village and I spent the entire day there taking pictures and exploring the Victorians.
Why do you think Palm Springs attracted those architects to come out here in the first place? Was it fate…
RI: Much of it was fate. Much of it was just the social, economic, political, and demographic cycles of time. There’s a term that I really dislike but I find myself using it occasionally, — a perfect storm. The quality, the nature, and the accomplishment of our architects are just phenomenal. All of those architects whom we know have remarkable educational backgrounds, but importantly, which I think impacts the significance and the values of our architecture, is they all had inordinately significant early employers as mentors.
Modernism Week now attracts over 70,000 people in February. Even the Fall Preview Weekend is getting 7,000 to 10,000 people. Did you ever envision architecture here would draw numbers like that?
PHOTO BY JAKE HOLT
Modernism Week CAMP from 2016 in downtown Palm Springs.
RI: I have to say yes. I’m one of the founders of it. I sensed and I sought for people to be aware of, in this case, modernism. I think it’s really easy to say, ‘Oh, we never imagined …’ I cannot speak for anyone else, but I’m happy, pleased, eager, and proud to say that yes, this was the goal and then some. Very early on, after the first couple years of Modernism Week, I was like, ‘People are coming from all over. This is important. We should prioritize to make a little weekend course, put some instruction booklets together, some generic guidelines, and then one of us can go and we can raise money for it.’
I think it’s interesting that you have made it your mission, if that’s the word, to tell the Palm Springs story. You felt there was a story to tell about architecture and how all these other factors influenced it and the people that played the roles.
RI: That’s a brilliant way to put it. That’s exactly right. I don’t think about retiring. I’m just born loving architecture and compelled to do what I do. I wake up each day and just have to do it. The fact that I’ve garnered some attention and some response and someone who wants to pay to hear me do it, all the better.
Palm Springs Walk of Stars Dedication for Robert Imber, 2:30 p.m. Oct. 22, Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center, 300 S. Palm Canyon Drive. Free admission.