The click of Modernism
Julius Shulman, who died last year at 98, was arguably the most significant photographer of architecture, ever. And if we’re talking about the documentation of the Case Study Houses and other shining examples of mid-century American Modernism, he was simply the best.
He made stylish buildings look even more amazing than they were, though architects didn’t always like what he did. Richard Neutra, for example, was scandalized when Shulman brought a lot of furniture to his shoots. In the 2009 film Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman, Judy McKee, the photographer’s daughter, says, “My father would carry half of our household furniture around with him, which probably gave Richard Neutra a heart attack when he saw him drive up with all these props, because they would despoil his pure, pristine architecture. But my father wanted to make it look like people actually lived there.”
The Santa Fe chapter of the American Institute of Architects presents a screening of Visual Acoustics at 6 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 26, at CCA Cinematheque. Eric Bricker’s documentary is narrated by Dustin Hoffman. Interviewees include architect Pierluigi Serraino, Neutra scholar Barbara Lamprecht, celebrity homeowners Tom Ford and Kelly Lynch, and Shulman biographer Joseph Rosa.
The movie begins with a brief, bouncy history of Modernist architecture, tracing the arcs of design and ideas from Louis H. Sullivan to Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Neutra, and Mies van der Rohe. Shulman had barely 10 years of experience in 1945 when the Case Study House program, sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine, began. The revolutionary program, conceived to offer much-needed and well-conceived housing after World War II, boasted designs by Charles and Ray Eames, J. R. Davidson, and other top architects of the day. It had its best advocate in Shulman. Probably Shulman’s most well-known image is of the dramatically cantilevered, see-through Stahl House designed by Pierre Koenig — No. 22 in the Case Study program. Because of such photographs, Shulman “was able to effectively introduce an innovative lifestyle to the American public,” Hoffman tells viewers.
Other standouts in Shulman’s portfolio are his images of the Palm Springs house designed by Albert Frey, which he photographed for Good Housekeeping. The steel and glass box with a corrugated-metal roof is a gorgeous structure by Frey, who was the first disciple of Le Corbusier to build in the U.S. He and a few other architects developed what Rosa calls “a livable modern aesthetic in the desert” at Palm Springs from the 1940s through the ’ 60s. One of the best examples of this architectural aesthetic photographed by Shulman is Neutra’s 1946 Kaufmann Desert House. It’s an ordered but irregular assemblage of volumes in glass, stone, and steel; the horizontal roof planes seem to float on transparent, glazed walls; and the interiors open onto patios, a pool, and the desert.
Bricker’s film is peppered with Shulman’s black-and-white images of these houses. They punctuate the scenes with the talking heads, the spots with Shulman, and some jazzy, illustration-type