• keithhickman

A Look Into Pierre Koenig's Case Study House #22, The Stahl House

Without a doubt, it’s among the most famous houses in Los Angeles. The house is easy to describe: a steel framed L-plan, divided into bedrooms and the communal living spaces, all wrapped around a turquoise pool seemingly impossibly poised above the city. But words don’t do it justice. Julius Shulman’s 1960 photograph of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House 22, perhaps better known as Stahl House, changed the fantasies of a generation.

Shulman’s photograph of, or rather through, Stahl House made plate glass and steel girders, materials normally too industrial to be accepted by home owners, seem glamorous. It was magazine genius: a vouyeristic image of two women in a glass lined room, suspended above the lights of Los Angeles, seen from outside the glass, the ambiguous perspective of either a guest leaving late, or an intruder arriving unannounced—whatever you wanted it to be. Shulman’s notorious photo is more subtle than it first appears. The architecture is not so much shown as hinted at by the geometric underside of the roof, and the city is brought closer by the careful double exposure and the reflected image of the ceiling lamp that appears like a double moon inside and outside the house. Shulman’s genius was that he understood architectural photography first and foremost in terms of film, and not least Hollywood, the dream factory down the road. Where other photographers took static descriptive images of entire houses, Shulman made film stills, frozen moments from places you wished you lived in. When printed in John Entenza’s influential Californian magazine Arts and Architecture, Shulman’s photographs worked like an intoxicant on a generation of post-war architects.

The official agenda of Entenza’s Case Study House program was to reimagine the typical family dwelling using postwar materials and technology. They were meant to be affordable, and replicable, houses for a confident democratic society. But the irony is that almost all of the case study houses were one-offs, modernist gems that were never replicated. Instead of using the best of postwar technology, the building industry used the booming market to cover America in suburban tract housing built by a deunionised and deskilled workforce. Wooden frames proved cheaper than steel, and required less skill to manage. The Stahl House represents an alternative history, a custom built precision architecture that everyone wanted but few ended up getting.

credit to: Madlaina Kalunder and David Tran