For decades, the California Dream meant the chance to own a stucco home on a sliver of paradise. The point was the yard with the palm trees, not the contour of the walls. Julius Shulman helped change all that. In May 1960, the Brooklyn-born photographer headed to architect Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House, a glass-enclosed Hollywood Hills home with a breathtaking view of Los Angeles—one of 36 Case Study Houses that were part of an architectural experiment extolling the virtues of modernist theory and industrial materials. Shulman photographed most of the houses in the project, helping demystify modernism by highlighting its graceful simplicity and humanizing its angular edges. But none of his other pictures was more influential than the one he took of Case Study House No. 22. To show the essence of this air-breaking cantilevered building, Shulman set two glamorous women in cocktail dresses inside the house, where they appear to be floating above a mythic, twinkling city. The photo, which he called “one of my masterpieces,” is the most successful real estate image ever taken. It perfected the art of aspirational staging, turning a house into the embodiment of the Good Life, of stardusted Hollywood, of California as the Promised Land. And, thanks to Shulman, that dream now includes a glass box in the sky.
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Being inside makes you feel as if you’re floating, or even flying over the city. The house also provides visitors the chance to recreate Shulman’s famous shot, taken outside the glassy living space from the pool, which everyone does, and automatically makes it their new Facebook highlight. (Information on viewings, which start at $50: stahlhouse.com)
The site of the Eames House, one of the most famous houses in Los Angeles, has been open to visitors since 2005. Charles and Ray Eames were perhaps best known for their eponymous chair and other furniture, but in the architectural world, their house, otherwise known as Case Study House 8, is singular. Visiting the home, just off a bluff overlooking the ocean in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles, feels like making a pilgrimage.
The $10 public tour allows you to walk around the house, which is bisected by a small courtyard. From there you can take in the house’s design, an inexpensive one that used prefabricated materials ordered from catalogs. The Eameses took advantage of their skill in graphic and industrial design to create a simple composition of exposed steel frames and colorful steel panels.
What’s striking is not just the architecture but the otherworldly peacefulness of the site, with its dappled light, sloping hillside, cool ocean breezes and acacia, eucalyptus and pepper trees. I suggest taking a second to sit on the wooden swing, hanging from one of the trees’ branches.
The living room had been left exactly as it was when the Eameses lived there. But you won’t see it there until this summer. It has been moved to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until June 3 for its exhibition, California Design, 1930-1965: “Living in a Modern Way.”
Still, from outside the home, you can peer in to see its lofted spaces. (Information on exterior and interior tours: eamesfoundation.org/how-to-visit)
Shulman’s love of the new was not limited to rare buildings created by elite architects and enjoyed by the rich. He also photographed the rest of the city, from the streets of downtown to great department stores to factories and tract houses on the outskirts. It doesn’t get much farther from the beaten path than Watts, which is still not the safest of neighborhoods. But if you’re willing to explore, you’ll be in for one of the greatest architectural surprises of your life.
The Watts Towers, another subject of Shulman’s created by Simon, a k a Sam, Rodia, an immigrant laborer from Italy who didn’t think like everybody else. Day by day, from 1925 to 1955, Rodia worked on the towers outside of his house, adding glass bottles, broken plates, tiles and seashells to his complex of intertwined and jumbled steel structures that rose as high as 100 feet.
The structures’ frames were made of chicken wire, coat hangers, barbed wire and rebar. His tools were rudimentary, and he used no bolts or nails. Inside the gates of this mesmerizing twist of steel, ceramics and color, it feels like a cross between a drip castle, an oil derrick and the Sagrada Familia. Quite an accomplishment for a lay architect who didn’t have the imprimatur of a magazine. (Schedule and other information on public tours, $7: wattstowers.us)
Shulman is famous for capturing the work of Frank Lloyd Wright’s protégés Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler. But he also shot the work of the master himself, including several of his homes in Los Angeles. Wright’s Hollyhock House, in the East Hollywood neighborhood, is open to visitors. Located atop Barnsdall Park, the Mayan-inspired residence was constructed for the eccentric oil heiress Aline Barnsdall, whose favorite flower, the Hollyhock, appears in abstracted form throughout.
As you enter through a cramped hallway, you wonder what all the fuss is about. But proceed farther and the ceiling explodes upward and you enter the home’s highlight: its breathtaking living room. Centered on a huge stone fireplace, etched with a geometric frieze and fronted by what was once a moat, the room is filled with ornate woodwork, sleek Wright-designed furniture, striking stained-glass windows and wonderful views of the park and the city.
The house is planned around a central courtyard embedded with an amphitheater, and light-dappled rooms open to the park. I recommend checking out the collection of vintage architectural magazines in the study. (Information on how to schedule a tour, $7: hollyhockhouse.net)Continue reading the main story