Writing and photographing California Cool
If you grew up almost anywhere in America in the 1950s, California was the center of all things “cool” in American culture, from movie stars to Eames chairs. Architecture was no exception. Popular magazines praised the suburban lifestyle and newly discovered Modernism found in both architecture and interiors. Houses with flat roof lines, sharp geometric forms and walls of glass spoke of a new society emerging from post war austerity. When I arrived at architecture school in Berkeley in the mid 1960s, Modernism was still the order of the day. Then, American society became unglued. An ugly war, racial unrest, a cultural revolution in music and art and a rethinking of national direction cast a shadow on the Modern movement that lasted 25 years.
Starting in the mid 1990s architects in both Los Angeles and San Francisco began to re-evaluate their roots, so to speak, and began a revival of the Modernist movement. Using new materials and new technologies but working with the same design principles, they created residential and commercial structures that were at the same time fresh and reminiscent of iconic buildings designed a generation earlier by the likes of Nuetra, Kappe and Lomax.
Divining design trends can be as complex as predicting the weather, but from Hollywood to Healdsburg it was clear that Modernism had come back. You could see it in film, in the news and on your street. New residential structures sported flat roofs, laminated, heat resisting glass and walls of corrugated metal and stucco. The “cool” look of the ‘50s became a jumping off point for the “cool” architects of the 21st Century.
Images Publishing of Melbourne, Australia may be the most prolific publisher of architectural books in the world. Their small team of editors circles the globe looking for noteworthy architecture and architects. Marketing their books in Asia, Europe and North America, they have become the “go to” publishing house for people interested in architecture. I approached the Images’ publisher at the A.I.A. Convention in 2009 about doing a book on the Revival of Modernism in California. After some hesitation, they signed on to the idea and asked that I produce a book with at least 20 houses and fill 256 pages. I already had five or six projects in inventory, but I needed to find 15 to 20 more in all parts of California. I turned to architects Robert Swatt in San Francisco and Steven Kanner in Los Angeles to help me in my search. Together we came up with a list of thirty firms that were potential contributors. Then came the difficult process of trying to represent a broad spectrum of design and designers without ignoring any geographic area or age group. I was fortunate to find two architectural pioneers, Ray Kappe and Jerrold Lomax, still alive, productive and willing to participate. I also found young, energetic, talent around California with projects of remarkable beauty. My writing approach was to aim toward the sophisticated consumer and not architectural academia. Each architect and each building has a story to tell and I wanted to give voice to that story.
The book finally hit the book stores in the U.S. in late 2010. After an initial slow start, it became a good seller. In early 2012 a major home goods retailer picked up all copies of the book to distribute in their stores around the U.S. The book is now in its second printing.
Using video to tell stories…
Everyone likes a good story and people have been telling them to each other for probably as long as people had the ability to talk. Modern technologies have just made the ancient art of story telling a little easier and certainly more accessible. Film, video, and high speed web connections have given many of us the ability to tell stories that can shoot around the world in viral fashion informing, humoring, educating and entertaining us in ways we never imagined just a few short years ago.
As part of the commission to write and photograph the book: California Cool: Modernism Reborn, my publisher asked me to produce a short video about the book that he could use on his website and general marketing. My goal in writing the book was to give architecture and architects a human face. I had close to 25 contributors, all with different stories to tell. Photographing architecture is one thing, but creating a video about it is quite a different task. I knew what I wanted to do and had a general idea of format (thank you, Ken Burns) but I also knew I needed to collaborate with a videographer with the tools and experience to produce a professional level video. I turned to my friend and colleague, Eric Sahlin, a seasoned videographer and media producer who had recently left Adobe Systems. Sahlin had produced a number of videos at Adobe that were embedded into various websites. They had the level of sophistication and polish that I was looking for.
A deal was struck, arrangements made and we were on our way. I selected five architects to interview, mostly on the basis of their verbal abilities and comprehensive knowledge of the subject. The plan was to mix interview footage with pans and tilts of existing stills and “B-roll” footage shot at various architectural offices and a few of their project sites. Each of the interviews had some loose scripting, but my role as interviewer was to prompt the architect to talk about his role and his vision. Other than the fact that one airline misplaced half our equipment for a day, the shooting went well and we returned to Oakland with five hours of footage that we were going to condense into five minutes. Editing five hours of interviews actually took longer than the interviews themselves. All of the “dead-air” and momentary pauses were cut out and a simple coherent statement was cobbled together from hours of verbal meandering. Live interview footage was inter-mixed with shots of their work and workplaces. Eric found an upbeat soundtrack that he carefully laid underneath the dialog giving it an audio uniformity.
Architecture really does tell a story about society’s values and aspirations. In some ways, architects have an obligation to articulate that story. Our video is one small attempt to do just that.