California turned out to be the perfect incubator for modern architectural design, according to a photographer who has captured some of the state’s most iconic structures in his work.
“It was a perfect storm of design and building that took hold and exploded in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1950s and ’60s,” said Russell Abraham, the photographer author of “California Cool: Modernism Reborn,” published in November 2010.
The coming together of California’s open and carefree lifestyle with vital advances in technology and materials paved the way for a very distinctive brand of architecture in the mid-20th century, which Abraham captures in his book.
“California Cool” showcases this distinctive style from Southern California to the Bay Area and includes many of California’s masters of modern architecture. The style is characterized by geometric and minimalist forms, extensive use of metal and glass, flat roofs and outdoor decks and patios.
It’s a type of architecture that’s now being rediscovered, as people gravitate to the look made popular during the 1950s and early 1960s, thanks in part to television shows like “Mad Men” and a desire for stripped-down style.
“It’s where geometry itself becomes an aesthetic,” said Abraham.
Although Abraham’s work has been seen in numerous other books and magazines, “California Cool” is the first one that’s been his own from start to finish.
“A couple of different folks had been after me to do a book,” said Abraham, speaking from his office in Oakland. “It was a bit of work, to say the least.”
“You want a book to say something, not just to be a collection of pretty pictures.”
Abraham’s background prepared him perfectly for his specialty line of photography. He earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from UC Berkeley in the late 1960s, but then “became enamored of taking pictures of buildings,” he said.
He went on to study photography and get his master’s degree in that discipline, and after a stint in educational media, turned his attention to photography full-time.
Abraham said he found that photographing buildings came naturally, and he had an extra advantage when it came to dealing with architects.
“I speak their language,” he said. “I conceptualize things the way they do in terms of final imagery.”
The synergy that gave rise to modern California architecture had to do with several factors, Abraham said.
One was the unique West Coast culture, which attracts some of the best and most creative minds in the world. Another is the way that California synthesizes ideas from around the world and refashions them.
“A lot of the underpinnings (of California modernism) came from Europe, and a new style of architecture was modified to meet our lifestyles,” said Abraham.
There was also a new sense of “honesty and frankness and openness” at that time and this way of thinking became integrated into the open spaces of modern structures. Instead of a lot of small enclosed rooms, there were spacious “great rooms.”
“It was a style of architecture that took advantage of changes in materials and technology,” said Abraham, noting also that because these houses didn’t have the burden of winter snow, thick reinforcement of the structure wasn’t necessary, allowing them to be built with larger windows.
The modernist movement dimmed after a time, due in part to requirements of the style itself. Modern houses aren’t the easiest to live in, Abraham points out: Flat roofs tend to gather water and leak, large rooms can be drafty, and lot of windows, if not handled correctly, let in too much sun and heat.
“They can be challenging. They’re not environments that everyone can live in,” said Abraham.
However, now that the style has been revived, architects and builders are coming up with clever ways to go modern without the madness.
“There are architects in their 40s and 50s who are cranking out really beautiful work based on modern principles,” said Abraham.
“Architecture is a cultural statement – it’s more than keeping a roof overhead. It’s a statement of who we are as a people.”
More about his work can be seen at www.russellabraham.com.
Interview with Russell Abraham, February 2011
“California Cool: Modernism Reborn” (Images Publishing, November 2010)