- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

German architect Mies van der Rohe may have invented the glass house, but Los Angeles photographer Julius Shulman made us want to live in one.

In Mr. Shulman’s striking images from the 1950s and ‘60s, transparent rooms perch over hillsides to frame views of city lights and mountain ranges and capture the feeling of being on top of the world.

Still snapping pictures at age 95, the shutterbug has spent the past seven decades building a convincing case for modern architecture. His angular compositions, typically uncluttered by people and possessions, create the impression that even the most diminutive houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Charles Eames and other 20th-century visionaries are monumental in stature.

So iconic are Mr. Shulman’s black-and-white images in the world of architecture that is it surprising to discover that his photos, like many of the famous buildings he portrayed, are small and sometimes shadowy. A one-room exhibit of his pictures at the National Building Museum presents his expansive views of futuristic houses in 8-inch-by-10-inch glossies, arranged like starlets’ head shots. It was organized by the Los Angeles-based Getty Research Institute, which acquired the photographer’s archive last year.

The show makes it clear that Mr. Shulman is not a fine artist but a commercial one in the business of promoting architects and their work. His main skill is to frame steel-and-glass structures against desert and mountainous landscapes so as to create visual tension between architecture and nature. The effect is meant to make the modern buildings seem primal, like Greek temples on a hill, and it largely succeeds.

At his most artistic, the photographer uses the architecture’s crisp shapes and glassy surfaces to abstract effect, as in a cropped view of a Long Beach auto showroom, which is composed to create lines and squares like a Mondrian painting.

Current revival of mid-20th-century modern design has sparked renewed interest in Mr. Shulman’s work, and the exhibit offers plenty of retro imagery to enjoy. Flying-saucer-shaped houses, gas stations with flared canopies and Tiki coffee shops exude the optimism of the space age.

The negative aspects of postwar modernism also are present. Bulldozed hillsides, rising subdivisions, crowded parking lots and snaking freeways are celebrated as man-made marvels, conveying a naive faith in urban sprawl.

During the height of his career, Mr. Shulman traveled around the globe to shoot other midcentury landmarks, including Chicago’s corncob-shaped Marina City and the U.S. Air Force Academy’s chapel in Colorado Springs. But his best work was concentrated in Southern California, where he has lived since the age of 10. His scenes of indoor-outdoor living with swimming pools and backyard patios came to be synonymous with Southern California and continue to be copied in TV ads and magazines as quintessential symbols of the casual lifestyle.

His most emulated photo — two women sitting in the glassy corner of a house in the Hollywood Hills — was taken for a magazine that had started a building program in 1945 to promote modular houses. Construction materials and products for the prototypical Case Study houses, as they were called, were donated by publicity-seeking manufacturers. Mr. Shulman photographed many of the projects free of charge — and built his own reputation in the process. (The program never caught on with builders, but in recent years, several of the best-known Case Study homes have been restored.)

While snapping buildings from the 1930s onward, Mr. Shulman created a significant visual record of the still-developing Los Angeles region. Some of the most poignant snapshots in the exhibit depict subjects not typically associated with the architectural photographer: a group of commuters waiting to ride “the world’s shortest railway,” a trio of movie theater promoters, and a Mexican-American shantytown that eventually was demolished to make way for Dodger Stadium.

These lesser-known images express a humanity missing from Mr. Shulman’s more pristine, architectural shots. They and others in this nostalgic show paint an engaging portrait of a bygone Los Angeles, when the city was a less smoggy and congested place.

WHAT: “Julius Shulman: Modernity and the Metropolis”

WHERE: National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW

WHEN: Today through July 30; Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

ADMISSION: Free; $5 suggested donation

PHONE: 202/272-2448

WEB SITE: www.nbm.org

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