The careers of architects and photographers are often intertwined. An outstanding case is Max Dupain, Australia’s leading photographer of architecture, whose work was crucial in building the reputations of several architects including Harry Seidler, Sydney Ancher and Glenn Murcutt.
An international example is Julius Shulman, whose work during the 1950s and 1960s gave a similar boost to the popularity of Californian modernism. Shulman is particularly associated with the Case Study House program. During the 1940s John Entenza, editor of Arts & Architecture, commissioned leading US architects to design houses which embodied the best in contemporary architecture but which were also appropriate to suburban locations and budgets; most of the houses were built, a process documented in the magazine by Shulman and others.
The international fame of the Case Study houses, notably designs by Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra and Pierre Koenig, grew in part from Shulman’s ability to glamorise these primarily small, simple houses. In Australia also photography was crucial in romanticising houses which were products of the post War austerity economy – most 1950s houses were only about 100 square metres in floor area.
But these houses were also products of an optimistic period. In Europe and much of the USA Modernism was primarily expressed in public housing, a huge effort to meet the housing shortage produced by Depression and War. In California and Australia by contrast the public face of contemporary architecture was sun-drenched private houses. The abiding image was comfort and hedonism, rather than basic shelter.
Dupain, Shulman and others were important publicists for the success of architect-designed project and tract housing on the suburban frontiers of the Pacific Rim. Shulman’s photo of Case Study house 22, designed by Pierre Koenig for Buck and Carlotta Stahl, is one of the most famous of architectural photographs.
There is a distinct synergy between the high-contrast monochrome (Dupain, Shulman and most of their contemporaries rarely used colour film) of mid-century photography and the pronounced planes and geometry of contemporary modernism. Shulman and Dupain often heightened this aesthetic via lighting effects and models.
Other photographers, often with a documentary background, gave a more naturalistic role to human subjects. One of these was Kerry Dundas, who worked for Dupain & Associates before moving to London in 1958, working successfully as a photo-journalist. His stories and photos were published in the Observer, the Times, Vogue and other high-profile newspapers and magazines. He returned to Sydney in 1966, and worked again for a time with Max Dupain. The cover photo of Designer Suburbs is one of his photos from this time.
This photo was filed in the Dupain archive with no information about designer or builder of the subject house; only the photographer, suburb (St Ives, Sydney) and the family name of the owner. Hence we didn’t even know if it was a project house but the photo seemed perfect for the cover. For a start the house’s flat roof, expressed frame, full-height windows and sunny terrace encapsulated 60s suburban modernism (and how about the unfenced swimming pool?). We also liked the inclusion of the two children, who lived at the house.
This last information I received just before Xmas from Greg Holman (via Polly Seidler), an architect at Seidler & Associates, who remembered the house and its family from growing up nearby in St Ives. The house – it’s still there, little changed – is not a project home but one of several houses designed by Bill Baker for clients in St Ives during the 1960s.
Stanley George Lister Baker – generally known as Bill Baker – was born in 1920 and trained both as a pilot and as an architect before becoming a flying instructor with the RAAF during the War. After the War he completed his architecture studies but in 1950 became a pilot with Qantas. Among other places, his work took him to the US regularly and it was his exposure to new design there that convinced him to return to architecture during the 1960s. The influence of Californian suburban modernism is evident in both Baker’s commissioned work and the houses he designed for different project builders. These included Lynton Constructions in Sydney and the Melbourne builders CHI and Concept Constructions. Japan, another frequent stop-over during Baker’s Qantas years, also had an influence on his work, evident in the frequent use of translucent Shoji screens to divide interiors, as well as textured floors and ceilings.
There’s a nice synergy in the fact that this Californian Case Study-influenced architect should have some of his work recorded photographically in a similarly vibrant way. And by the way you can find out a lot more about Californian modernism from November this year when Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art hosts California Design 1930-1965: Living in a modern way, curated by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Charles Pickett, curator.