Modern Architecture Needs Clouds

Last weekend I attended a free film about architectural photographer, Julius Schulman (1910-2009), at the Washington Center in Olympia. I know little to nothing about modern architecture, but was intrigued by the title of this documentary, "Visual Acoustics," and felt the need to explore some new territory and get my head out of the clouds for the evening. I was only partly successful.

There was but a sprinkling of filmgoers in the theater (the Capitol Theater was deluged with Bruce Cockburn fans that same night), and my husband and I felt a bit on the rarefied side until a series of architects began describing Schulman's contributions to the birth of modern architecture, especially in Southern California in the 1950s and 1960s. Their language described a world that was abstract and spatial, innovative and impractical, urban and hyper-rarified. Schulman and the architects he worked with--Frank Lloyd Wright, John Lautner, Frank Gehry, and Richard Neutra (whom the Accidental Naturalist kept referring to as Richard Nutria) were creating, selling, and mainstreaming modernism. They were selling a lifestyle, especially in the wide-open spaces of Los Angeles and Palm Springs. That lifestyle is best embodied in Shulman's iconic image of Case Study House No. 22 (below)--two women chatting (posing?) rather stiffly in a cantilevered glass room overlooking Los Angeles.

I felt our 1970s house with its pitched roof, solid walls, and floor lamps was low-brow, uninspired, and clunky. And I like it that way. Modern architecture and its strange forms is interesting to me, but a tour through a Frank Lloyd Wright house usually causes me to blurt out, "I could never live in a house like this. Where would we put all our stuff?" The showpiece modern homes Schulman popularized are angular, cold, edgy--the antithesis of cozy, which is what I want in a home. And I think, perhaps subconsciously, Julius Schulman tried to impart a bit of coziness in his photographs. How do I know this? Many of his photographs of the exteriors of buildings include clouds--puffy, soft, curvilinear, cozy forms that mitigate the starkness of the architecture. In Southern California, clouds aren't omnipresent the way they are in the Pacific Northwest, so I imagine that Schulman made an effort to include them.

For your enjoyment, here are a few of Schulman's cloud-enhanced photographs of some very modern buildings. This is what happens when your universe becomes cloudcentric...nubiacentric?

For more information on Shulman, click here to see an excellent trailer for Visual Acoustics