Recollecting the moderns

Between the 1930s and 1970s, modernist architecture reigned as boxy houses with slit windows popped up around the countryside. Modernism Rediscovered, with text by Pierluigi Serraino, focuses on this prolific period of American architecture and provides a compilation of photographs by one of the most well-regarded photographers of architecture, Julius Shulman.

Modernist architects strove to create a total integration of art and life by producing functional living spaces that combined the mechanical and the natural. Shulman understands the architect’s purpose and thus gives the landscape surrounding a building equal dominion in the composition. In the case of “Seidenbaum Residence” (designed by Richard Dorman), the sharp, structural angles of the home subtly intercede with the sloping mountains in the background. There are no historical references or flowery text to embellish the images — they come across as matter-of-fact and simplistic as the architecture itself.

In the book’s attempt to be comprehensive, some photographs better left excluded are a bit dull and lifeless with little interest or contrast. For one particular photo of a home in California, Shulman chose to shoot at an odd angle that makes this house look like it’s being consumed by a sinkhole. Notwithstanding, Shulman captures the strong lines and geometric shapes within the structures — he reveals personality within architecture, playing with perspective and scale. Up-angle points of view give these buildings a grand appearance and a monumental, overpowering presence.

The books uncovers that, for architects, photographers are saviors, for without them our memories of these dwellings would be lost. Because of them, these places can live forever. Serraino regards photography as the “mechanism of memory” and writes, “Disappearance from the editorial horizon effaces a project from the collective consciousness. But once the artifact has entered architectural discourse, its existence is permanently fixed in the space of the text.”

Liz DiDonna writes about the arts for MT. Send comments to [email protected].

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