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Friday, July 17, 2009

Remembering Julius Shulman

July 17, 2009

I was saddened to hear that Julius Shulman died on Wednesday, July 15. He was 98. I only knew him slightly, but he hardly seemed to age in the 20 years I observed him. Julius’s life reminds us that an individual can have enormous impact on the culture.

In 1989, I moved to Los Angeles and worked for AC Martin for a few years. The firm’s history was completely tied to Los Angeles’s emergence as a dominant city in the 20th century. In the 1950s and 1960s, they worked with Julius Shulman on documenting several projects. The images of the Department of Water and Power are a permanent record of what Reyner Banham waxed poetic about. During the seminal landmark “Blueprints for Modern Living” exhibit at MOCA from 1989 to 1990, David Martin and I were looking at one of Julius’s photograph of the building, and he commented, “The lady with the red scarf looks like she just walked over to DWP from one of the case study houses.” The model dates the photo, but she also captures the awe people felt at the majesty of the new building floating over downtown. Shulman caught more than the building, he made the magic.

Whenever I ordered prints from him, he would ask if I wanted them delivered, or if I wanted to pick them up. Driving up into the Hollywood hills to his Soriano house on Woodrow Wilson Drive was one of the highlights of my short stay in Los Angeles. He referred to himself as Uncle Julius and was endearing. He was also irascible, self-absorbed, and a braggart. But I didn’t care; he was easy to forgive. After all, he told the story of the cultural emergence of West Coast modernism to the rest of the world. After seeing him a few times, you also got to know a gentler person. But with an audience, he was a ham. In the privacy of his home, he would encourage guests to “play” the metal Bertoia sculpture, enjoy a bowl of ice cream, and talk about everything. He adored his wife, and she watched over him.

I interviewed him for the April 1990 issue of LA Architect. That article is reproduced here.

Q: When did you start taking pictures?

In high school in 1927 I took a course in photography. In the process of taking field trips, I had the assignment to take pictures of a high school track meet at the coliseum. I set my camera on a ledge overlooking the tunnel. I heard the starter’s gun, and the runners came out of the tunnel below me. As they went over the first hurdle I snapped my picture. That picture’s coming out in the Angeles magazine story as my first picture.

I didn’t do anything with the camera again until 1933. I finished high school and went on to UCLA in 1929. In 1933 somebody gave me a vest-pocket Eastman Kodak camera, and I started taking snapshots. I went from UCLA up to Berkeley for a couple of years, had the camera with me and stated taking pictures of students and buildings around the campus, without ever knowing about architecture. Those pictures I blew up to 8x10s, framed, and sold around the campus.

When I came home in February 1936, my sister had rented a room to a young man employed by Neutra, and she introduced me to him. One Sunday, at his invitation, we went to see the Neutra house down at the bottom of the canyon here. I took some snapshots, and gave the prints to the fellow, who showed them to Neutra. He called me and said Mr. Neutra would like to meet you, can you come down Saturday. I went over and Mr. Neutra said he liked my pictures very much, and he bought some. That same day Neutra pointed to the house up on the hill that was being done by Raphael Soriano. So I drove up to Silverlake and met Soriano, and we became good friends. That’s how I became involved in architecture.

Q: What format did you use?

99% of my work was 4x5. However, in the 50s we did a lot of work for certain magazines such as Good Housekeeping, whose art directors insisted that all photographers work with 8x10 film. As time went on, 35 mm became so effective, that most publications could reproduce it just as well as they could reproduce 8x10. There’s no limit to the work you can have published from a small camera. I would take a black and white picture first, then I would have my assistant hand me a color transparency and sometimes a color negative, and then I’d take a 35 mm slide.

Q: Did you do other kinds of photography?

I covered the arts, sculpture, ceramics, landscape architecture, and found there’s a big market for commercial work, too. Especially in the 50s, I had accounts among the advertising managers of major building projects and material companies back east. American Airlines had their national maintenance and operational plant in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which I photographed for an architect in Oklahoma City. And while I was doing this work in those years I learned that the companies who installed the major equipment needed pictures of their products. Especially in those days, they were heavy advertisers in the architectural and the trade magazines. After I finished photographing the building, I spent two or three days photographing equipment in the boiler room, and I sold thousands of dollars worth of photographs to the manufacturers, who appreciated the service I was giving them.

Q: Do you miss the use of black and white photography in magazines?

So many publications, even the AIA magazines, waste a fortune on printing color. They could get two or three times more pictures in their space if they remove the color. However, in this world of ours, if you want advertising revenue, and you show a magazine full of black and white pictures, the advertisers will say no, we will not publish in your magazine unless you show more color editorially.

Q: Did you work side by side with the architects on shoots?

For one house that I photographed for Gregory Ain, there was no landscape because the people didn’t have the money for landscaping. So while driving to the shoot, we saw a geranium grove in front of someone else’s house, and we sneaked out and filled the car with boughs of geraniums and stuck them in the ground in front of Ain’s house. Even in black and white they photographed very nicely. But the point is that architects worked together with photographers in those days. Neutra often pushed me away from the camera and had me or my assistant move the camera right or left, or crank it up and down. Other architects agreed that we would discuss the composition, and most of the time they would be willing to accept the framework of the scene that we were creating. But as the years went on, architects became too busy to go with me on assignments, or too lazy, and in the bigger firms the architects didn’t even know where the building was.

Q: Do you perceive yourself as photographing for history?

I would be very dishonest if I were to say that I was far visioned. I didn’t dream of ever becoming a photographer. After seven years of school, I almost became a forest ranger. I knew all the time that photography was important, but it was only in recent years that I realized what a treasure the photographs are.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Postcard from Waikiki

May 19, 2009

Waikiki is sort of like Venice. You are a tourist. No way around it. You are not a native. Instead of gondolas at every turn, there are tiki torches. And rum.

Honolulu is also a strange stew of Miami and Bangkok with a bit of Vegas thrown in. It’s like Bangkok in places because of the density, dark garages, and hideous architecture. And Miami, because after all, it is American, and you do end up at the shore sooner or later.

Diamond Head from the water

Most folks are as near naked as they can be. But that isn’t what makes it so much like Vegas. One of the main attractions is walking from high-rise hotel to high-rise hotel and checking out the luxurious lobbies. The lobbies are smaller and not as outrageous as those in Vegas. Some, like the Halekulani Hotel, are intimidating, but if you act like you belong and walk towards the bar, nobody bothers you. Unlike Vegas, where the show is largely within a sealed environment, here everything opens up. Gorgeous furniture and art are just a few steps off the street, and there are no doors or windows. That part hasn’t changed in thirty-five years since my last visit.

Despite the beauty of the Halekulani’s public spaces, the buildings aren’t that interesting, and there was almost nothing to connect with from my memory of the old hotel. I remember a group of modest bungalows in an overgrown garden. Now there are high-rise slabs with pitched roofs that are supposed to recall the original buildings but don’t. The bar and dining room still have a great view, the beach is still miniscule, but it’s not a world apart like it used to be.

Royal Hawaiian Hotel from the beach

On the other hand, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel still feels distinct from the crass commercialism of Waikiki, despite the Royal Hawaiian Mall across the rear lawn and the towering Sheraton. Known fondly as the Pink Palace, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel once defined the concept of the luxurious sanctuary in the exotic tropics. Now it feels like the last defense. Just down the beach, the historic Moana Surfrider resort has a lush banyan tree courtyard, but a hideous 1950s-era addition. The Royal Hawaiian’s 1960s-era addition is relatively inoffensive. The recent renovation adds a layer of luxury that doesn’t quite add up. The men’s room off the ocean lanai wasn’t remodeled, and some bronze sliding doors to the retail shops were not removed. A green window frame should have replaced the dark aluminum windows. There seem to have been a few test windows that look great, but they haven’t finished the job. It feels like a partial facelift. However, the staff is gracious and not obsequious. The women are greeted with leis and the men with a necklace of dark beads. My room was spacious and outfitted with appropriate fabrics. Even though I faced the garden, I could hear the ocean. I do wish that Starwood would stop charging wireless fees for their more expensive properties. It doesn’t make them more competitive in this economic environment.

What remains unchanged in Honolulu is the light and the warm water. The best time to get a beach chair is in the early morning and the late afternoon. Watching the light settle on Diamond Head allows you to imagine it’s the late 1920s and you are one of a few dozen people who have discovered this paradise. Just when you think you are lucky enough to have secured a beach chair under a pink umbrella in the Royal Hawaiian’s strip of sand, you realize there are others who have their favorite chairs reserved in perpetuity.

Despite the occasional elitist string of deck chairs at the luxury hotels, Honolulu is weirdly democratic. There are lots of European and Japanese tourists, wedding parties, and Americans of almost every economic strata and hue. Eventually they all end up at the beach, if not in the water. If you want to mingle with folks you would never meet at home, take a sunset cruise on a catamaran. One dollar mai tais bring out the best in people.

The real purpose of my visit was to see Shangri La, the Doris Duke Estate. It’s a bit of a trial to get tickets, because you have to transact over the phone, and all you get is a message machine. The touring is administered by the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and it feels a bit like taking a tour in a third world country. You go several miles north of Waikiki to catch a rickety jitney to take you several miles south of Waikiki. But the good news is that the Honolulu Academy of Art itself is an exquisite piece of tropical courtyard architecture designed by Bertram Goodhue and worth a visit. So leave yourself most of day for the Duke House Tour, the Academy, and a nap. (The website is www.honoluluacademy.org.)

Doris Duke Estate: master bedroom wing

Doris Duke Estate

Before my tour, I did not read any biography or see any of the movies about Doris Duke. I wanted to appreciate the house for itself. The home, designed by Marion Sims Wyeth, is the size of a normal house in Bel Air or Beverly Hills; it is not a Hearst Castle–type villa. At some level it was an indulgence, but it was a serious indulgence. The house itself is not a brilliant architectural statement, but it is a brilliant interior experience. Apparently, Doris Duke was the orchestrator.

The jitney moves slowly down a steep drive through the green leafy tunnel to the banyan tree courtyard. Because there is no air conditioning, the tour guides hand out handsome fans as soon as you arrive. Basically all you see are two perpendicular walls and two doors. You wonder which one will open first. The door to the garden leads to a Mughal-style garden, which is largely decorative. You are not allowed to wander beyond the shaded terrace inside the entry. The other door is the main entrance to the house. This wall is one of the best architectural moments on the entire estate. Anybody who stood at this front door knew they were about to enter the vacation home of one of the wealthiest women in the world. A long blank wall with little relief tantalizes. Inside the front door is a cool dark reception area sparkling with multicolored light from high Spanish-style windows. As your eyes adjust, they see a screen that obscures an interior courtyard surrounded by thin mirrored columns. Each space you enter beckons you to another space beyond. Yet there is no clear path, the plan meanders. House as long seduction. Despite the hot day, the house was cool and comfortable. As you enter the living room, your eye goes out to the pool, guesthouse, and Diamond Head beyond. The guard pushes a button, and the living room window descends into the floor as it does in Mies’s Tugendhat house in Brno, Czechoslovakia. There weren’t many of those in the late 1930s! Various windows, shades, and shutters temper the direct view and sound of the Pacific. In many ways, this was my favorite architectural move. The living room does not open to the ocean directly; only a few of these shaded windows do. Originally, the dining pavilion was completely glazed on two sides. In the 1960s, Duke removed the original aquatic displays and added fabric to enclose the room and make it resemble a tent. Living on the ocean can be too much. Duke’s bedroom and bath, which were not on the tour, for reasons I didn’t understand, also have a highly screened view of the ocean. On the opposite side from the sea, the suite opens to a private courtyard. The ability to mitigate the overwhelming grandeur of the site is one of the design accomplishments the tour does not address.

Our tour guide spent too much time at the beginning, and we were rushed through some splendid Turkish-style rooms at the conclusion. Apparently Duke’s house could not accommodate rebuilding the room from the Damascus home of a wealthy merchant in one space, so she recycled the pieces into two rooms. I don’t think Duke was so concerned about the precise restoration of any artistic fragment as she was about creating a collage that suited her sensibility.

The curatorial direction at Shangri La appears to be moving away from Miss Duke’s celebrity. Given that her creation has little to do with scholarship, therein lies a conundrum. Is this a collection meant for scholarly study or aesthetic pleasure? While the collection was probably created largely for personal enjoyment, Duke left instructions in her will that the residence and collection be left to study for scholars of Islamic art and culture. But how could the benefactor be left out of that equation? What will interest visitors, the breadth of the collection of Islamic art or Doris Duke and her curious life? On my tour, the guide discouraged speculation about Miss Duke and gave only the barest outline of her life. But she did admit that most of the visitors were more interested in Miss Duke than Islamic art.

Doris Duke Estate: view to public beach

Doris Duke Estate: roof pavilion

Doris Duke Estate: pool and guest house

As the small, beautifully printed book about the house from the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art points out, Doris Duke was the only individual continuously involved during Shangri La’s active inhabitation. Amazingly enough, to my untrained eye, the parts that we saw during our tour add up to a beautiful coherent whole, not a jumble. For example, Doris Duke placed the most valuable artifact, the mihrab from the tomb of Imamzadeh Yahya in Iran, on one of the main axes of the house, even though the whole purpose of this kind of niche is to indicate the direction of Mecca—which it does not in this location. Again, this suited her needs. It’s difficult to know the nature of Doris Duke’s intense interest in Islamic art. Was she collecting these works as unique aesthetic objects independent of context or as part of some larger stream of thought? Or did she begin in one place and end up in another? Why was she interested in supporting the study of Islamic arts? Besides the interest in specific pieces within the collection, it is hard to see how the context supports the study of this kind of art. As a place to write, or meet, one could hardly imagine a more beautiful setting. Perhaps that will be its greatest value, a repository that reminds us that cultures that we do not understand require further dialogue.