1,300 Photos of Famous Modern American Homes Now Online, Courtesy of USC

modernist home
“For aver­age prospec­tive house own­ers the choice between the hys­ter­ics who hope to solve hous­ing prob­lems by mag­ic alone and those who attempt to ride into the future pig­gy back on the sta­tus quo, the sit­u­a­tion is con­fus­ing and dis­cour­ag­ing.” Those words, as much as they could describe the sit­u­a­tion today, actu­al­ly came print­ed in Arts & Archi­tec­ture mag­a­zine’s issue of June 1945.

“There­fore it occurs to us that the only way in which any of us can find out any­thing will be to pose spe­cif­ic prob­lems in a spe­cif­ic pro­gram on a put-up-or-shut-up basis.” What the mag­a­zine, at the behest of its pub­lish­er John Enten­za, put up was the Case Study Hous­es, which defined the ide­al of the mid­cen­tu­ry mod­ern Amer­i­can home.

USC Arch 2

More specif­i­cal­ly, they defined the ide­al of the mid­cen­tu­ry mod­ern south­ern Cal­i­forn­ian home. Los Ange­les pro­vid­ed a promis­ing envi­ron­ment for many of the for­mi­da­ble Euro­pean minds who came to Amer­i­ca around the Sec­ond World War, includ­ing writ­ers like Aldous Hux­ley, com­posers like Arnold Schoen­berg, and philoso­phers like Theodor Adorno. Archi­tects, such as the ear­li­er arrival Richard Neu­tra, espe­cial­ly thrived in the young city’s vast space and under its bright sun, giv­ing shape to a new kind of twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry house, one influ­enced by the rig­or­ous­ly clean aes­thet­ics of the Ger­man Bauhaus move­ment but adapt­ed to a much friend­lier cli­mate, both in terms of the weath­er and the free­dom from strict tra­di­tion.

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Even if you don’t know archi­tec­ture, you know the Case Study hous­es from their count­less appear­ances in movies, tele­vi­sion, and print over the past sev­en­ty years. Soon­er or lat­er, every­one sees an image of Neu­tra’s Stu­art Bai­ley House, Charles and Ray Eames’ Eames House, or Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House. The decades have turned these and oth­er hous­es from the peak of mid­cen­tu­ry mod­ernism into price­less archi­tec­tur­al trea­sures — or at least extreme­ly high-priced archi­tec­tur­al trea­sures. Some open them­selves to tours now and again, but very few of us will ever have a chance to expe­ri­ence these hous­es as not qua­si-muse­ums but actu­al liv­able spaces.

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Now we have the next best thing in the form of the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­ni­a’s Archi­tec­tur­al Teach­ing Slide Col­lec­tion, which col­lects about 1300 rarely seen pho­tographs of mid­cen­tu­ry mod­ern hous­es shot all over the west­ern Unit­ed States from the 1940s to the 1960s by Koenig him­self, along with his col­league Fritz Block, who also hap­pened to own a col­or slide com­pa­ny. “Instead of the pol­ished tableaus you might find in the pages of Archi­tec­tur­al Digest,” writes Hyper­al­ler­gic’s Carey Dunne, “these spon­ta­neous snap­shots cap­ture quirky and more inti­mate views.” Koenig and Block cap­tured these hous­es “with an architect’s geo­met­ri­cal­ly mind­ed and detail-ori­ent­ed eye, nev­er pre­sent­ing them as mere real estate.” The archive also offers images of mod­els, blue­prints, and oth­er such tech­ni­cal mate­ri­als.

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Arts & Archi­tec­ture meant to com­mis­sion ideas for the every­man’s house of the future, “sub­ject to the usu­al (and some­times regret­table) build­ing restric­tions,” “capa­ble of dupli­ca­tion,” and “in no sense… an indi­vid­ual ‘per­for­mance.’ ” Yet Amer­i­can mid­cen­tu­ry mod­ern hous­es, from the Case Study Pro­gram or else­where, all came out as indi­vid­ual per­for­mances, but also the first works of archi­tec­ture many of us get to know as works of art. And the work of archi­tec­tur­al pho­tog­ra­phers like Julius Shul­man, espe­cial­ly his icon­ic shot of the Stahl House high above the illu­mi­nat­ed grid of Los Ange­les, has done much to instill in view­ers a rev­er­ence suit­ed to art. A col­lec­tion of non-stan­dard views like these, though, reminds us that even the most vision­ary house is a real place. Enter the USC archive here.

All Images: via USC Dig­i­tal Library

via Hyper­al­ler­gic/Fast Co Design

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Quick Ani­mat­ed Tour of Icon­ic Mod­ernist Hous­es

A is for Archi­tec­ture: 1960 Doc­u­men­tary on Why We Build, from the Ancient Greeks to Mod­ern Times 

The ABC of Archi­tects: An Ani­mat­ed Flip­book of Famous Archi­tects and Their Best-Known Build­ings

Bauhaus, Mod­ernism & Oth­er Design Move­ments Explained by New Ani­mat­ed Video Series

Watch 50+ Doc­u­men­taries on Famous Archi­tects & Build­ings: Bauhaus, Le Cor­busier, Hadid & Many More

Gehry’s Vision for Archi­tec­ture

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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