Chasing the Light: Marvin Rand

Port discovers the architectural photographer who immortalised Los Angeles’ iconic Modernist buildings

Killingsworth, Brady & Smith, Killingsworth, Brady & Smith’s own office, Long Beach, 1957. Courtesy of the Estate of Marvin Rand

Marvin Rand was a native Angeleno. In a city where most people have come from somewhere else in search of something better, Rand’s photographs – many lost to time since the mid-century – reveal the perspective of an insider. The images he produced reflect a career that celebrated the city’s most important contributions to architectural history, particularly that of California Modernism.

In the mid-twentieth century, Los Angeles was characterised by stunning urban growth, industrial expansion, and a populace of open-minded design patrons. These factors spurred a period of incredible architectural innovation that established this urban conglomerate as a pacesetter on the international design scene. The city’s lush relationship with the outdoors, graceful steel-frame structures, and apparent ease of living also captured the imagination of a broad populace – and continues to do so. LA has been rightfully regarded as one of the world capitals of the Mid-Century Modern.

Welton Becket & Associates, Capitol Records, Hollywood, 1956. Courtesy of the Estate of Marvin Rand

This LA can’t be fully understood without examining Rand’s seminal role in launching architectural careers and shaping how the city was pictured and marketed. Importantly, his understanding of this period wasn’t based on a reductive idea of what Mid-Century Modern entailed, in terms of a particular way of living or even a specific moment in time. As a sympathetic Angeleno, Rand understood his hometown as a dynamic entity that fostered continuous experimentation. Ever curious, he was a perfect match for the city as a perpetually changing place. He sought out the newest contributions to its built environment while also working to salvage early Modern buildings that had laid the historical groundwork for more recent innovations. Rand entered the scene at an opportune time. An effervescent publishing industry had embraced the creed that design was indeed within reach for the masses and that it represented the zeitgeist of the postwar California citizen. While Rand’s career must be understood as bridging Modernism to the new approaches that followed, his contribution to promoting Mid-Century architecture is a vital one.

Honnold & Rex Office building on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, 1961. Courtesy of the Estate of Marvin Rand

Rand’s signature was both distinct and sought after in mid-century Los Angeles’s burgeoning architectural scene. The proliferating practices spatialising the technological achievements of the military for a postwar society, such as the development of plastics, plywood, and glues for the aircraft industry – and their increasingly progressive client base – found in his pictures a profoundly impactful representation of the city’s visionary designs. These new construction technologies widened dramatically the design vocabulary of architecture, allowing longer spans between structural elements, open plans, large expanses of glazing, and an overall lightness of the building massing.

From the early stages of his career in 1950, Rand contributed authoritatively to a total rethinking of how to depict the urban and suburban architecture. The great accomplice in Rand’s output is the Southern California sun, casting hypnotic shadows on Modernist surfaces all year round. The tropical vegetation topped it off. Palm trees and cars became inseparable companions in the iconography of the modern in southern coordinates captured in 4-by- 5-inch negatives.

Killingsworth, Brady & Smith, Killingsworth, Brady & Smith’s own office, Long Beach, 1957. Courtesy of the Estate of Marvin Rand

A Rand hallmark was shooting in natural light. He saw himself as the first recipient of the architectural experience, and his mission was to broadcast his awe to everybody else. After all, by his own description, his mandate was “the recording of contemporary architectural projects for publication.” Behind this detached description of his professional purpose was a passionate advocate of the modern in all aspects of design, from textiles to industrial design to signage to the city.

Rand believed that “the architectural photographer should never be set up as a critic. Our role is to enhance and state the content of the building in an aesthetic way.” He did, however, buy into the possibility of architecture of its own time, particularly design that was within reach of the working class as well as the elite. His photographs, full of conviction for Modernism, helped build consensus for this new idiom and bridged the gap between the pioneers and the multitude.

California Captured: Mid-Century Modern Architecture, Marvin Rand, published by Phaidon, is out now

Life in a Mid-Century Masterpiece

Shelley Klein reflects on growing up in an extraordinary home in the Scottish Borders commissioned by her father, the influential textile designer Bernat Klein

In 1957, the celebrated architect Peter Womersley was commissioned by Bernat Klein – an influential textile designer whose fabrics were used by the likes of Christian Dior, Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent – to design a four-bedroom house in the Scottish Borders. Today, the house stands as a fine example of modernist architecture built in Britain during the mid-century period.

As recognition of its design and rare status, Klein House, which has recently been put up for sale, has a Category A listing – the highest grade of listing given by Historic Environment Scotland, and one not often awarded to post-war buildings. Here, Klein’s daughter Shelley gives personal insight into the history of the house and shares her memories growing up there. 

“I was born here in 1963 and I’ve lived in lots of places, but this house has always been home. My father, Bernat Klein, was a textile designer and commissioned the house from Peter Womersley in 1956.

“One day he was out driving with my mother and he came across Peter’s first commission, Farnley Hey, completely by accident. He was so drawn to the building that he knocked on the door and asked if the same architect could build a house for him!

“Peter became a really close family friend and moved to the Scottish Borders shortly after he completed the house in 1957. He became the legal guardian for my siblings and I and he spent a lot of time with us here.

Bernat Klein and Margaret Klein in the living room with Shelley and Gillian, c.1960

“He was a very private man but he loved parties and being one of the gang. Professionally, I don’t think he was the easiest person to get on with as he had very strong opinions about what he saw. However, my father trusted his vision completely and felt that Peter shouldn’t be interrupted in realising the design.

“Over the years my father adapted a few things but most of it is exactly as Peter designed it. All of the soft furnishings are designs that my father made for the house – the fabrics for the sofas and curtains are an extraordinary type of slub yarn with a mix of wool and mohair. They have a wonderful three-dimensional quality to them.

Klein House

“My mother Margaret loved what dad did with the house, but it was really his passion. They used to have fantastic parties here and it was always being used for fashion shows. Fashion editors would fly up to Edinburgh and come to the house to watch models walking up and down the living room – my sister and I would hide in the bedroom and try on all the wigs, it was great fun.

“As a child you’re not really aware of what a building is, it’s just a home – but I feel differently now. I came back to look after my father for a few years before he died and it’s given me time to appreciate the house for the architecture as well as all of the memories it gave us.”

This interview is an excerpt from The Modern House, read more here

Modernist Architecture Redefined

As it opens up the modernist canon to include both contemporary buildings and lesser-known examples from around the world, a new book asks what modernism means today

Shigeru Ban: Curtain Wall House, Tokyo, Japan, 1995 © Hiroyuki Hirai

In 1910, Austrian architect Adolf Loos delivered a radical lecture railing against what he called ‘the plague of ornament’. Later published as an essay titled ‘Ornament and Crime’, Loos’ polemic was first and foremost a violent reaction to the excess and elitism of art nouveau. For Loos, art nouveau’s decadence was an unnecessary burden on both the powers of invention and human labour. Both, he claimed, slow the tempo of cultural progress. Subject as it is to changing taste, the form of an object, he argued, should last as long as the object lasts physically. This was not the first time a moralising stance has been taken on style, but more than century later, it has proved to be one of the most influential.

A new book, Ornament is Crime: Modernist Architecture, plays on Loos’ legacy and celebrates the architectural language of modernism with a visual survey of extraordinary homes dating from 1910 to present day. As it opens up the modernist canon to include both contemporary buildings and lesser-known examples from around the world, it necessarily asks what modernism means today. 

Adolf Loos: Villa Müller, Prague, Czech Republic, 1930. Picture credit: Vaclav Sedy

“Modernism isn’t just a style, it’s actually a radical approach to life and to art,” says co-author Albert Hill. “That clear purpose has resulted in great architecture, and people recognise that this is not architecture by numbers, this is not architecture by corporate committee, this is architecture by vision and values.”

In the 20th century, the tremors of modernism were felt in everything from painting to literature, and to underscore the lasting intensity of these values, authors Matt Gibberd and Albert Hill have interspersed silky black and white photographs with punchy quotes, song lyrics and literary excerpts from figures such as Susan Sontag and Samuel Beckett. “Instead of just being about architecture, the book is about architecture’s place within modern culture,” Hill says.

Tadao Ando: House in Monterrey, Monterrey, Mexico, 2011. Picture credit: Toshiyuki Yano

Although modernism is often historically confined to the 20th century, Ornament is Crime liberates the term by looking at how some of the most respected contemporary architects – including John Pawson, Richard Meier and Tadao Ando – continue to work in the modernist tradition. 

“There are very obvious characteristics that these houses share,” explains Gibberd. “Flat roofs, often horizontal bands of glazing, cubic or cylindrical forms. Modernism came about because of new technologies – the possibilities of curtain-walling, and the fact that concrete allowed you to have these open floor plates, huge expanses of glazing – and those still very much apply.”

Le Corbusier: Villa Savoye, Poissy, France, 1929. Picture credit: Fondation Le Corbusier

Many of these defining characteristics were outlined by Le Corbusier in his five points of architecture. With its free facade, ribbon windows, pilotis, roof terrace and open plan, the Swiss-French architect’s iconic Villa Savoye, built in 1929 in Poissy, on the outskirts of Paris, is an embodiment of these principles and remains a benchmark for modernist design. In the absence of surface decoration, Gibberd suggests that modernist architecture becomes about “shape-making”, and like Loos, Le Corbusier and legions of architects since, Ornament is Crime extols the virtues of pure form.

Ornament is Crime: Modernist Architechture is out now, published by Phaidon

Inside Richard Meier’s White-Walled World

The American architect – part of the New York Five and one of the city’s most iconic modernists – talks to Port about his body of work and branching out from his beloved colour white
Richard Meier by Joss McKinley
“It began quite innocently,” says Richard Meier of the events that propelled him to fame. In 1972 he was a young architect practising in New York, and teaching at Cooper Union with John Hejduk, the educator and theorist who would later become the school’s dean of architecture; Charles Gwathmey, another architect, was working in the same building. Meanwhile Michael Graves and Peter Eisenman were teaching at Princeton. All the men were near the start of their careers – they had built little, and not much building was going on in New York, which was mired in ever-deepening economic and social crisis.
 
“We all knew one another. We taught together; we were friends, and we decided to get together and sort of criticise one another’s work,” Meier recalls. “So we went to a neutral space, the conference room at the Museum of Modern Art, everyone bought one work that they were currently involved with and the others gave their opinion of it. We had a really good, friendly discussion. And afterwards we said, that was really good – we should make a little pamphlet to commemorate the event.”
 
That pamphlet became, in the hands of George Wittenborn – an art books publisher on Madison Avenue – a slim book called Five Architects, and the architects became known as the New York Five. Each architect included two of their houses in the publication, and Arthur Drexler, MoMA’s influential director of architecture, contributed a pugnacious introduction, praising the five for remaining true to the “rational poetry” of pure modernism, as opposed to the “proletarian snobbery” of brutalism and the “elegant but arbitrary” pure structure of Mies and his followers. For a such a slender volume, the effect was electric – even explosive. 
 
“At the time, most architectural discourse, if you can call it that, was around issues of social responsibility… and perhaps the very faint beginnings of postmodernism and reaction against modernist orthodoxy,” says Paul Goldberger, the Pulitzer-winning architecture critic for Vanity Fair, formerly of the New York Times and the New Yorker. “And then, into this mixture, come these young architects who were interested in modernist form and continuing to develop and refine it, and push it forward, and did not feel it was a dead end, but felt it was very much relevant. In the context of the architectural culture of the 1970s, it felt very fresh… very much oriented around pure aesthetics and pure forms and making a shape and making a space as an end in themselves.”
Left to right: presentation model of the Ackerberg House and presentation model of the Rachofsky House in the North Gallery of the New York office.
“I was surprised how much was written about it,” Meier says. “It made people think about architecture in a different way, which was very positive.” But with modernism divided and falling from grace, this clarion call was controversial. The New York Five became known as the “whites”, and were attacked in the pages of the Architectural Review by a rival grouping of proto-postmodernists and neoclassicists, the “greys”. “People certainly read it as a manifesto of some sort, and it provoked other events,” Meier says, although he denies that the aim was polemic. For him, the value was all in those initial meetings: “It was really a wonderful coming together. We knew one another; we had dinner with one another, but this was something different. It was just sitting in a room, talking about the work – not only one’s own work, but also the work of the other four.”
 
Meier was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934, and established his office in New York in 1963. “White” was an entirely apt label for his work. He is associated with the colour like no other architect. The Five were always divergent in style, and their architecture went in radically different trajectories: Eisenman into deconstructivism, Hejduk into sui generis idiosyncrasy, Graves into monumental postmodernism. But Meier has remained loyal to white-walled modernism. One monograph of his work opens with an essay by him in praise of the colour: “White is always present but never the same, bright and rolling in the day, silver and effervescent under the full moon of New Year’s Eve. Between the sea of consciousness and the earth’s vast materiality lies this ever-changing line of white.”
 
In interview, however, he’s far more restrained – at times, frustratingly taciturn. “I felt that we were part of a tradition and respected that tradition, and showed the way it could be expanded,” is pretty much all he will be drawn to say about his relationship with his modernist forebears. But his meaning is spelled out in his work. His crowning achievement is the Getty Center in Los Angeles, a hilltop complex of galleries the size of a small town, developed over more than a decade at a cost of $1.3 billion. Few architects get this kind of opportunity; even fewer could make such consummate use of it. He has built other cultural landmarks in the United States as well, including the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; and he is one of continental Europe’s favourite Americans, with major projects such as city halls for The Hague in the Netherlands and Ulm in Germany. Dazzling white is sometimes cut into by pale stone and apertures of sky; grids and purist geometry are kept from sterility with surgical curves and deviations from the orthogonal. 
Photo cards with images from the Richard Meier Archive to commemorate and celebrate Richard Meier’s 80th birthday created by the staff from his New York office.
“What he has done is distilled a kind of elegant purist essence out of modernism,” says Goldberger. “But his works are very much compositions; they’re about balance and weight and lightness and solids and voids, all very beautifully balanced together into compositional wholes that are elegant and serene. That is not what modernist orthodoxy has prioritised so much as what he has prioritised. He has been pursuing his own private version of modernism, consistently, his entire career.”
 
Some of Meier’s earliest projects in the late 1960s and early ’70s, were in New York. After that, for more than a quarter of a century, he was overlooked in his home city. But with the turn of the century, that changed. Between 1999 and 2006, he built a trio of short, elegant towers on Perry Street and Charles Street in Greenwich Village, a decorous little riverfront group that deftly combines variation and restraint. “To have three buildings together, three blocks on the river, is really unique. It makes me proud,” Meier says. “And they’ve really transformed an area, given it a new life.” 
 
They also created demand for Meier’s architecture among condominium developers. In the early years of the 21st century, with his catalogue heavily focused on houses, civic centres and galleries, Meier had more than once expressed a desire to design a skyscraper. Since then, a few Meier spires have appeared in locations around the world, and now one is under way in New York: an apartment tower at 685 First Avenue. The site is a couple of blocks south of the United Nations building on the East River, and Meier expresses his satisfaction that his own tower is much the same height and orientation. “It’s like they’re a pair of buildings,” he says. “That context gives me great pleasure.”
Senior Associate Hans Put working on the design of a new private residence in East Hampton.
However, once it’s finished the uninformed eye might not recognise 685 First Avenue as a Meier: it’s black, clad in a “very taut, very striking” curtain wall of shadowy glass. It is a remarkable rupture with the Meier trademark. What made him break the practice of a lifetime and make a black building? Typically, his reply is a little… well, a little colourless. “ came to me and said ‘I like your work; I like the buildings that you did downtown, but would you do a black building?’ So I thought about it a while, and I said sure. So that’s what we’re doing.”
 
To break up the mass and highlight the blackness and tautness of the curtain wall, there’s a sliver of white about two thirds up the tower: one apartment, different to the others, with clear glass to reveal its pristine interior. An interesting place to live, I say. You’ll be able to point it out from across the river.
 
Another first: Meier laughs, and permits himself a dry joke. “We should tell the sales people that they should charge more for it.”
 
This article is taken from Port issue 20. To subscribe, click here.
 
Photography by Joss McKinley