Saturday, November 10, 2007

Glamour shot: the vibrant city; the dying planet

6-9 November 2007 (cont'd.)

The night before I met a collector pal downtown for one of the Central Library’s events – an interview/conversation with the architectural photographer, Julius Shulman. It’s almost impossible to visualize most of the Case Study houses and the most famous of the Neutra and Schindler houses without thinking of Shulman’s photographs (though I don’t mind trying). Fortunately, the discussion (to the extent there was one) did not really focus on the iconic architecture and Case Study showcase houses so much as the urban and architectural evolution of the City of Los Angeles. I appreciated the absolute absence of nostalgia from Shulman’s perspective and reminiscences – as much as he clearly cherished some of his childhood reminiscences of a much smaller, self-contained Los Angeles, with the areas beyond its limits, however variably defined, far more easily characterized as rural or agricultural than suburban – it hardly deflected him from his sanguine view of the City as it now stands – sprawling yet far more dense, the downtown skyline now ‘filled in’ with high-rise buildings verging on skyscrapers with more to come, even as older office buildings are re-purposed for residential lofts, and its population density begins to exceed its 1930s levels, with development continuing apace all the way into the warehouse and light manufacturing areas on its flanks (something I’ve had the opportunity to personally observe on my last couple of trips to artists’ studios on the downtown periphery). Even as Wilshire Boulevard continues its unbroken march of high-rise buildings clear to the Pacific. Even as the Valleys Shulman himself once knew as orchards, ex-urban villages and small agricultural tracts have become sprawling suburban tracts annexed to the City or small cities in themselves. (It’s hard for me to conceive of the San Fernando Valley as a separately incorporated city, notwithstanding its proponents, for that very reason. Setting aside its chaotic pattern of development, its interminable sprawl, the S.F. Valley already seems to have organized itself (in the loosest sense) around a scatter of suburban ‘centers’; e.g., Van Nuys; Granada Hills, Northridge and Reseda (I call it the ‘Devonshire Division’ area – with the police precinct station and the CSUN campus as its anchors; the palm-ier suburbs of Sherman Oaks and Encino anchoring the Valley’s southern end – with Ventura Boulevard becoming a kind of Wilshire Blvd. North; etc. In other words, there are probably somewhere between four and six small “municipalities” here.)

Perhaps Shulman’s somewhat upbeat view of all this is to be expected. His photographs are “staged” no less.than some of these houses (many of them once conceived, democratically, as a kind of idealized ‘middle-class’ suburban housing) are now “staged” for sale – to a distinctly upper-class clientele. Many of his photographs glamourize the San Fernando Valley’s ‘carpet of lights’ no less than they glamourize the houses in the hills and canyons above it (and the lifestyle they represent). Consider the Case Study Houses, many of them perched in the Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica Mountains, many of them designed with generous, sweeping views of either the Valley or the Los Angeles Basin. Shulman’s photography showed off those views. But beyond that, they encapsulate and glamourize a certain lifestyle: casual but leisurely; domiciled behind glass walls yet at some remove from one’s neighbors – high above or discreetly set apart; dramatically sited (and sometimes precariously perched), yet impeccably constructed, built to endure (I think especially of Pierre Koenig’s magnificent Case Study House 23). Or consider Shulman’s famous day-for-night photograph of Neutra’s house for the Kaufmans in Palm Springs – luxe, calme et volupté. Shulman’s photography enshrines a standard of sybaritic luxury that engendered a certain notion of the southern California “good life.” That this is a standard unattainable to most of the people who have flocked to the state in the succeeding years is one issue. The more troubling issue is that the consequences of these ‘advertisements for the good life’ have been far from happy.

The San Fernando Valley is a living advertisement for out-of-control development – with the land carved out into one suburban subdivision after another with no end in sight. How difficult is it to imagine the ecological catastrophe of the Amazon with that increasingly thick and shaggy carpet of lights at our feet? The Los Angeles basin could never have sustained the population and economy it had circa 1930-1950 without water conveyed from the Colorado River and, as it has evolved since, from points north. Arguably, L.A. required the density it has reached since the 1970s and 1980s to become what it is today – and perched, as we were that night, in that splendid auditorium, in that splendid library, surrounded by the splendor of that privileged quadrant of downtown L.A., who would wish it away? But how far can we expect it to continue? The problem is not simply Los Angeles; it’s state-wide. But I sometimes wonder if, like certain forest or brush-fires that are allowed to burn within limits until the fuel is consumed or a natural fire-break is reached, perhaps we should simply let particularly vulnerable residential areas go – by fire, flood, quake, etc. Certainly developers should be liable for the drain they impose on natural resources.

Should architects – and their photographers – be deterred from encouraging them? We (the entire planet) need a new standard – and maybe someone to glamourize it. I would never call Julius Shulman’s photography real estate or shelter porn (something I admit to having quite a yen for). But – I think of him drawing an elegant signature Wednesday evening across the skirt of the woman’s dress in his famous night-time photograph of Pierre Koenig’s dramatically cantilevered Case Study House 23 – imprinted on my friend’s tote bag – let’s face it and just enjoy it for what it is: it’s glamour photography.

I seem to be specializing in the side-track. Where was I? En route to Fette’s? Yes – but I haven’t even said anything about my dinner with M--. It was sublime. We were through with Shulman for the evening; but we managed to cover just about everything else – from art to the social and cultural zoo that is contemporary Los Angeles. The wine was from the Loire – we toasted Fette (hey – it’s her gallery’s first anniversary) – but the conversation was pure L.A. I might lament L.A.’s on-going development; but with no assist from Shulman whatsoever, it looked pretty wonderful Wednesday night.

Speaking of fette . . . . . (don’t worry, I’m almost there. . . . .)

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