Shulman's Modern Midwest

Shulman's Modern Midwest

Julius Shulman: Chicago Mid-Century Modernism
By Gary Gand
Rizzoli, $60.00

The Chicago area has such an abundance of architectural treasures that it’s easy for locals to feel smug about it all. This also makes it easy for us to shortchange other important design gems, especially those that are usually unseen by visitors. Case Study architect Pierre Koenig reportedly once remarked, “There’s no midcentury modernism in Chicago.”

Julius Shulman: Chicago Mid-Century Modernism goes a long way toward proving him wrong. Koenig’s comment actually appears to have been the factor that motivated author Gary Gand to put the project together. While the book is a fitting tribute to the photography of the great Julius Shulman, who died last year, it’s equally significant as a document of the rich local legacy of midcentury design and a growing grassroots movement to save it from replacement by the onslaught of starter castles and piccoli palazzi.

Shulman was one of the greatest architectural photographers of the 20th century. His 1962 Case Study #22—a night shot of a glass pavilion cantilevered high above the Sunset Strip, offering a glimpse of the residents within and the lights of the Los Angeles grid beyond—telegraphs all the tantalizing glamour, drama, and excitement that the “California lifestyle” promised.

It also may be the most recognized architectural photograph of the century. Gary Gand, by trade a sound engineer and musician, is a serious design wonk. He and his wife Joan started collecting midcentury ceramics and glass in the 1970s, which ultimately culminated in their purchase of a 1955 house designed by brothers George Fred and William Keck, visionary advocates of what today we’d call “green” houses, beginning in the 1930s.

Their pursuit of modernism also led the Gands to buy an Alexander & Alexander house in the midcentury mecca of Palm Springs, where they met and befriended Shulman in the late 1990s.

In 2004, the Gands founded Chicago Bauhaus & Beyond (CBB), an affinity group for modernism junkies like themselves, which today claims about 400 dues-paying members. Many of them live in midcentury houses equal in quality to the Case Study houses or the Connecticut houses designed by the Harvard 5 group, and largely unknown outside the Chicago area. The Gands began seeing too many of these fall to the wrecker’s ball since they were sited on large, wooded acreage and “under-built” to current zoning allowances, unprotected by anything resembling landmarks legislation.

Gary Gand thought someone had to document the best ones, and in 2007 convinced Shulman, who was still remarkably robust and active in his late 90s (working with photographer Juergen Nogai), to do the job. Before shooting these photos, Shulman had been to Chicago only once in the 1970s to photograph Edward Durrell Stone’s Standard Oil building.

Gand breaks down the featured houses, all of which are owned today by members of the CBB group, by designer. Some of them are from architects with international reputations: Bertrand Goldberg, most famous for Chicago’s corncob-like Marina City; the Keck brothers; and Harry Weese, noted for his “anti-Miesian” triangular, poured-concrete Metropolitan Correctional Center. But the book’s real contribution to the architectural canon is the exposure it provides for many relatively unsung architects like Paul Schweikher, Edward Humrich, Burton Frank, and others, who designed hundreds of houses around Chicago in the postwar era that displayed a particularly mid-continental melding of Miesian modernism with Wright’s brand of organic naturalism.

Gary Gand is not a writer. A lot of the prose falls flat, and certainly appears as if a copy editor had never looked at the text. Despite this, the book contains a trove of intriguing research, including revealing commentary from original owners and architects. Gand’s fervor for the unique local quality of the architecture rings throughout. Then, of course, there are the pictures.

For obvious reasons, most photography of residential architecture focuses on the furnishings. Although many of the residences in this book are attractively decorated, several have fallen victim to “updates” over the years, incongruous flooring and lighting usually, or in the case of Harry Weese’s own house, painting all the interior cedar paneling white. Most would never measure up to the typical shelter magazine or coffee-table book editor’s standards without a photo stylist’s extreme intervention.

But Shulman’s genius for composition and perspective makes you truly see the architecture—and most spectacularly shows off its integration with the landscape. The bulk of the projects were shot in the lush, green, Midwestern late summer, and several wonderful images feature Shulman’s gift for lighting, allowing you to see interiors from exterior shots.

Julius Shulman: Chicago Mid-Century Modernism offers a fine look at an underappreciated design tradition, and—if CBB members have their way—may spark the next important movement in historic preservation.

Read all of AN‘s Friday Reviews here.