The projects in this show investigate the visual techniques and spatial arrangements of the “Good Life Modernism” popular in post-WWII America. At the height of the Cold War, architecture was sizzling.Architecture became almost pornographic when John Entenza began publishing the Case Study House Program in his Art & Architecture magazine. With un-alluring details like financing, harsh weather, neighbors and social issues suppressed,the Case Study House Program produced an “air-brushed” architecture of hedonism. Like the boyfriend of the pin-up girl, actual clients were de-emphasized in lieu of hypothetical families, easy substitutions for the lusting viewer.
Any examination of the Case Study House program is difficult to separate from an investigation of the work of Julius Shulman. The photographer is responsible for some of the most iconic imagery of the twentieth-century, the subject of which was often a Case Study House. Shulman’s work normally evokes a brief moment of a larger narrative. Operating as stage-sets, the Case Study Houses became part of a visual campaign selling the easy living of Southern California. The currency of “modernism as stage-set” is clear, Shulman’s work is the subject of many recent high-profile solo exhibitions, and continually reinforced in the contemporary mass media by such magazines as One and Dwell. The easy good life is still being sold, and it is still being bought.
Sponsored in part by the military-industrial complex as a way to create demand for products and capacity created by the war, the Case Study Houses were at the beginning of modern American consumer culture, whereby demand was created through mass media to consume supply. This is but one part of an extensive relationship between Modern architecture and mass media. The publication of these projects (often early in their career), helped to establish the reputations of many of the designers of the Case Study Houses. Many of the names remain familiar to us today, including Richard Neutra, Ralph Rapson, Eero Saarinen, Craig Ellwood and the Eames. Often the houses were designed and built speculatively, or with minimal involvement by the client/patrons. This allowed the Modern architectural devices of framing,spatial manipulation and industrial materiality to be adapted to residences without heavy programmatic restraints or an adversarial climate.
The designs create an intimate coupling of site and building through an extensive use of spatial intertwining and visual framing, at once objectifying nature and capturing it in an inebriating but sophisticated cocktail. Many of the projects here explore this unstable condition, where a varying levels of reflectivity, translucency, and transparency mix. The complex spatial overlays further this effect, allowing relatively modest constructions to generate multiple readings.
The projects analyze ten of the approximately thirty houses published in Art & Architecture as part of the program. They follow Shulman’s lead in allowing the re-presentation of the project to be transformative, questioning the authority of any understanding of the designs.