Brilliance, banality, and the inevitable ubiquity of 'good taste'

Above, shooting the Stahl House, or Case Study House #22

At best, high Modernism was a stage set, the paper visions of its architects coralled into perfection by the sympathetic eyes of its photographers. The 2006 sales brochure for Case Study House #21 in Los Angeles is a good example. Combining Julius Shulman’s original 1959 photographs with a series of contemporary artistic responses, the comparison between dry, saturated newness and the stained and crooked reality is marked. Catherine Opie, Laura Letinsky and Grant Mudford’s photographic interventions are, in contrast, deliberately mundane and quotidian, flattening the once majestic geometry and superhuman precision into suburban banality.


There is no nostalgia for a forgotten past in the artistic interpretations, merely puzzled chronicles of what has become, along with its 23 siblings (out of 36 designs), one of the most fallible of modern icons. Architecture’s version of ‘modern’ remained curiously static throughout the latter part of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first, perpetuated by the imagery and monographs that translated buildings into reliquaries or pilgrimage sites. Digital-era design eschews the crisply drawn and contemplative in favour of insta-hit drama and spectacle. Along the way, the reliquaries have been opened up and plundered; no longer are the secrets of Modernism confined to scarce sacred texts and the arbiters of taste.

Catherine Opie (above): without perspective correction and with the self-conscious reflection of the artist in the broad expanses of glass, Opie’s image encapsulates all the ‘defects’ that architectural photographers seek to remove. The details hint not at a domestic life in progress, but at a brief, fleeting visit to a sacred place, captured as if by a tourist. At left, a pair of recently removed training shoes

Laura Letinsky (above): as with Letinsky’s still lives, this shows the house undoctored and ‘unstyled’, with a door propped open by a bag, a prominent thermostat spoiling the white walls and the aged and crooked floor tracks and skirting trim

Grant Mudford (above): a frame-filling close up emphasises the industrial at the expense of the domestic, reminiscent of Lewis Baltz’s pioneering monograph The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California

Shulman’s results are probably no more tricksy than the work of any other architectural photographer, but ultimately, they bear little or no relationship to reality. What they did do, however, was set the bar for aesthetic aspiration, but in visual terms and in real life. The emerge of Minimalism, some two decades later, was arguably a more focused attempt at replicating the purity of the architectural photograph in a physical space. In 2006, Shulman revisited the house and took another set of photographs (below), effectively recreating what he had already captured, presumably in an effort to emphasise the ‘timeless, unchanging’ qualities of the architecture (even down to the Porsche 356 Speedster parked in the carport, another European design ‘translated’ for the American market, created at the behest of importer and architecture enthusiast Max Hoffman).


The house was sold by Wright20 in December 2006 for $3,185,600 (the Porsche going for $132,000). The auctioneer’s microsite for CSH #21 includes the artistic interpretations and Shulman’s contemporary portfolio (see below).



Things change. The imagery that accompanied this strand of modern architecture marked the beginnings of an aesthetic shift, as the avant-garde moved from its role as visual agitator to provider of benign, pleasing, harmonious views that accorded with the romantic/industrial aesthetic. Today, practically every expression of the twentieth century avant-garde has been mellowed to the point that it is all encapsulated by a broad visual style one might simply call ‘good taste’, the eye candy that streams from tumblrs, or Ffffound or any number of inspiration or imagery blogs. Take a site like, a rich treasure trove of imagery that illustrates the breadth of ‘modern contemporary’, and the digital soup of influences that go in to creating any piece of artwork. Provenance and homage and pastiche are commonplace, practically encouraged (see the Cover Versions or the ‘I Can Read Movies‘ series).


Part of this constant revival of the objects and imagery of the past is pure nostaglia, but like all nostalgia it is tinged with sadness, for these are products, services, places and objects that are changed irrevocably by the passing of time, their appeal enhanced by their unavailability. Hence the ‘good taste’ mode of modern living is a form of museum stewardship, a Soanian life in miniature, with the the house as a treasure trove of times past and unrealised, everything constantly curated. You could blame the Eameses or any number of websites, but there’s also the role of technology. Devices like the iPad encourage and promote a perverse form of nostalgia that is framed entirely by technology, be it apps for accordions or darkrooms or the inexorable drive towards turning every item of media – book, album, film – into a digital facsimile of itself. Today, ‘the contemporary style’ of the mid-century period exists not as a provocation but a confirmation of a certain mindset. The fantastical imagery that came to define the era of high modernism is everywhere, a visual shorthand for sophistication and an indicator of a perpetual, unfulfilled nostalgia at the core of modern culture.

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8 Responses to Brilliance, banality, and the inevitable ubiquity of 'good taste'

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  2. name required says:

    I don’t know. I do agree that there is a high degree of fakeness to it all, but I’d say Californian pragmatism actually strove for banality and the everyday. I guess it has to do with how this banality was presented as a shiny new lifestyle, but I’m not so sure it has to do with the architecture itself, which made a point of doing what was asked as simply as possible, sort of a refined “big box vernacular” but for residential buildings. I mean, I think these unglamourous pictures are closer than Shulman’s to the actual, intended spirit of the Case Study Houses.

    Or maybe that’s just how we Europeans see the CSH: as a style where the architecture itself is not so important and actually tries to step aside, as an ode to and a refined version of suburban banality. So maybe for us it’s not quite at the core of modern culture, which is something rather hard and Futurist some people seem to have forgotten…

  3. T says:

    The first line is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever read on Things.

    Here’s an alternative: At best, high Modernism was about making new social & environmental relationships, which photographers like Julius Shulman failed to understand.

    On the other had, Opie is great & your analysis was spot-on.

    • things says:

      Fair enough, and good call. We should have probably clarified that opening line with an ‘American’ or ‘West Coast’ as it’s a bit of a blanket statement as you so rightly say…. never our intention to be intentionally ridiculous.

      • T says:

        Thanks for the reply. I didn’t mean to sound snarky/harsh.

        Here’s the point I’m not sure you’re getting. ‘West Coast’ modernism was not a stage set – it only appears that way if you understand it through photography. Koenig, for example, talked about architecture as a branch of social science. The Stahls were working people, not fashion models. Also the Stahl House does not require air conditioning due to the overhangs & swimming pool – really smart design having nothing to do with style. I don’t know how you convey stuff like this through photography, but it seems to me that Shulman *didn’t even try*.

        I guess in the end I’m grouchy because the Shulman-love is getting a bit over the top. He missed a lot.

        Just as ‘the map is not the territory’, so too ‘the photograph is not the architecture’.

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  5. things says:

    I think we’re at slightly cross purposes, made worse by the lack of clarity in our original post; this is more about the photographic legacy of the CSH, and Shulman in particular, than the original intentions of the CSH programme or its architects.

    The ‘photograph is not the architecture’ – of course. Yet the photograph is the object representation of architecture, the primary means of conveying and disseminating architecture. We may never see a CSH in the flesh, so to speak, but they are instantly familiar to us. It’s that photographic familiarity that turns these projects into stage sets, and it’s these settings that seem to inspire and be imitated, rather than the physical architecture itself.

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