Like so many fascinated by Los Angeles, I grew up worshiping the Case Study houses. With their crisp edges, clean lines, muted colors, and vast planes of glass, they struck me as the perfect objects of aesthetic desire, especially when seen through the loving, era-defining eye of architectural photographer Julius Shulman. I think of the most famous of all his images, the one of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22: one party-dressed lady perched on an ottoman, another relaxed in a faintly Corbusian chair, both visible through seemingly endless floor-to-ceiling windows and cantilevered over the illuminated grid of the city below. But somewhere along the way I lost my religion.
“Los Angeles is the most beautiful city in the world, provided it’s seen at night and from a distance”—an apocryphal quotation and Shulman’s photograph have reinforced each other and a certain idea of Los Angeles’s peculiar appeal in our collective conscious. Appreciation for the city requires distance from the city, and the distance attained is an index of the success achieved. Look at any well-known picture of a Case Study house, taken by Shulman or a less legendary residential photographer, and you never see Los Angeles, at least not at any level of detail at which it feels real. When the city appears at all, it does so almost as an abstraction: a blanket of lights or a distant skyline, visibility dependent on the smog level of the day. Los Angeles functioned not as a setting for the Case Study houses, but as a backdrop.
But the city isn’t a backdrop. It’s the main event. It’s where I eat and drink, where I buy books and watch movies, where I meet friends, and, indeed, where I actually live. The city is where things happen. The city is where I want to be. Why don’t these houses want to be there too? The Case Study program sprang from laudable, democratic ideals, but they are the ideals of a different era. Our cities still need good affordable housing, but it’s time to change our vision of that housing: it should not be in the shape of a house distant from the city.
Read the whole thing at Boom: a Journal of California, whose new issue “Recoding California” I guest-edited. It features work by such other noted observers of Los Angeles and Notebook on Cities and Culture guests as Christopher Hawthorne, Noé Montes, Alissa Walker, Carren Jao, Eric Brightwell, and Jim Benning.