Three Fell Swoops

Category: Curators Published: Tuesday, 11 September 2007 00:00 Hits: 3605

Among the drawings, all by the late Pierre Koenig, is a large number of black-and-white presentation renderings of steel houses from the 1950s and 60s.The architect, who maintained a small office, made his own presentation drawings in a wiry, pen-and-ink line that sometimes recalls the work of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. Like many of Koenig’s works, the drawings evoke the 1950s and the belief in a perfectible world.

Koenig’s papers are among the three extraordinary archives acquired recently by the Getty Research Institute, the research arm of J. Paul Getty Trust.With the addition of the archives of John Lautner and photographer Julius Shulman, the institute becomes, in three fell swoops, one of the most important centers of scholarship for 20th century architecture in California.

Koenig (1925-2004) was one of a number of Los Angeles-area architects, including Craig Ellwood, to become obsessed with the potential for attaining formal perfection in steel-and-glass houses. Continuing to work in a modernist style long after its popularity waned, he lived long enough to see his work come back into fashion, in part because of the fame of Julius Shulman’s now- iconic 1960 image of the Stahl House (also known as Case Study House No. 22) cantilevered fearlessly off a Los Angeles hillside. Koenig embraced the artful minimalism of Mies van der Rohe while often choosing to punctuate his own self-effacing style with dramatic gestures, such as picturesque siting or carefully framed views that add a romantic layer to his severe style.

As he examines the archives, de Wit explains,“We see Koenig returning to rework the same problem over and over again: what is the best way to design a building in steel and glass?”

Much is to be learned looking over the Koenig archives, says the slender, bespectacled curator. Among the papers are plans for an unrealized project to create housing for members of the Chemehuevi Tribe of Native Americans, who live in the desert near Lake Havasu on the California-Nevada border. Executed in the 1970s, the schemes seem prophetic in their use of strategies for natural cooling—the long overhangs of the building are meant to block the sun, while the orientation of the houses, as well as the location of windows, maximize the effect of prevailing breezes.

So new is the Getty’s other recent archi- tectural acquisition—the archive of John Lautner—that the papers that comprise the collection were literally arriving on the day Art and Living visited the Getty Research Institute.

Lautner (1911-1994) was a student and later an assistant to Frank Lloyd Wright. After settling in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, the architect worked on a series of commercial buildings and houses. As idealistic and uncompromising as his teacher, Lautner designed houses that were often premised on bold engineering ideas, most famously in the Chemosphere House, which boasted an octagonal living space balanced atop a concrete tower and nestled on a steep slope.

Lautner also loved technological gadgets, such as the giant turntable beneath the Carling House, capable of repositioning the living room into an outdoor patio or, as in the Goldstein House, where the glass walls of the master bedroom slide away, leaving no separation between the realm of the boudoir and the secluded hillside below.

De Wit, who says he had a quick look at the Lautner material before it arrived at the Getty, reports that all phases of design of many Lautner projects are represented in the papers, including some of the original ideas sketched out on yellow trace paper.

As important as the Koenig and Lautner archives are to scholars, the acqui- sition of 250,000 photographs by Julius Shulman may be the greatest prize of all. The complete set of negatives and prints by the nonagenarian photographer, who has been working since the mid-1930s, is probably the single most important source of historic information about modern architecture in Los Angeles. 

While Shulman and many of his images are justly famous, there are actually a few surprises in the Shulman archive, says Christopher J. Alexander, the Getty’s associate collections curator.

Best known for working in Southern California, Shulman also shot images in 48 states. And beyond the familiar images of Neutra designs and those of other modernists, Shulman photographed industrial buildings like oil derricks and refineries. Landscapes, such as the 1940s-era open bean fields where Los Angeles International Airport would eventually be built, also are typical of the photographic records he kept.

In short, the Shulman archive may turn out to be more than an assortment of high-brow architectural photographs, as it provides a record of all types of construction and land use in the Los Angeles region over the course of a half century or more.

What impresses Alexander the most, he says, is the consistent quality of Shulman’s images. Like Edward Weston, Shulman apparently does not like to crop his work. Out of 70,000 or so black-and-white images that represent much of the photographer’s day-to-day work, “you see very few exposures, if any, with X’s marked through them,” he says. The photographer, adds Alexander, “would typically shoot ten images on a given job, and all ten are keepers.”

Pictured: John Lautner, Stevens House (Malibu, California), 1969. Gelatin Silver Print. Photo by Julius Shulman. Image courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust.