Heroes of Sustainability: Julius Shulman

Photo by Gerard Smulevich

Photographer Julius Shulman will forever be celebrated for his photos of midcentury Modern architecture, particularly the famous shot of Pierre Koenig’s glass-walled Case Study House #22. The way he was able to capture an architect’s vision, rendering the structures he saw through his lens so much more than just a collection of building materials, made him known throughout the world and brought the Modern design aesthetic that swept through California in the mid-20th century into the international spotlight.

Environmental Consideration
Not only was Shulman a champion of architecture, he was also a champion of the land occupied by the houses he so expertly photographed. He spent years fighting developer-driven architecture and smog, detested sprawl, and fiercely respected the environment around Los Angeles, where he lived.

What he loved about the houses he photographed was how they interacted with their surroundings. “The reason why this architecture photographs so beautifully is the environmental consideration exercised by the architects,” Shulman told Metropolis magazine in 2007. “It was the sense that here we have beautiful canyons, hillsides, views of the ocean. Everyone loves these photographs because the houses are environmentally involved, and this was before the emphasis on what everyone is calling green.”

That emphasis was something Shulman didn’t understand. He supported the concept of “green,” of course, but not as a current craze. “In the fifties and sixties it was done automatically,” he said of sustainable architecture. “The term ‘green’ meant you related to the environment. That’s all green means: you are the environment.”

A Lasting Impact
Shulman died at the age of 98 in 2009. His legacy is honored by many, including in the 2008 Dustin Hoffman-narrated documentary Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman, which explores the photographer’s life and his impact on architects of the time. Also dedicated to him, the Julius Shulman Institute at Woodbury School of Architecture “focuses on Julius Shulman’s enduring involvement in the issues of modernism, which include efficiency, environmental sensitivity, social responsibility, client-architect relationships and all aspects of design,” according to the school’s website.

The Southern Californian will always be remembered for his eye for composition and light, as well as his brilliance in capturing — and caring for — the earth on which architecture’s foundation is laid.

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