The Kaufmann House (also known as the “Desert House”) is probably the most popular house of Richard Neutra. His nocturnal image is one of the icons of Modern Architecture Photography par excellence, and although it was not the most appropriate to the intentions of the architect1, the magnificent photograph of Julius Shulman (fig.3) will end up equaling in importance (if not overcome) to the work itself.
For its part, the house Catasús in Sitges is the second house (after the Ugalde) managed by José Antonio Coderch (accompanied by Manuel Valls) in the 50s, and leads to a series of single family homes2 with related themes (Ballvé, Gili , Uriach, Rozes, etc.). Its nocturnal image (fig.4) is one of the pioneers of Spanish architecture in the postwar period, and it coincides with similar shots also made by Francesc Catalá-Roca for the house Senillosa in Cadaqués in that same year of 1956. Unlike Neutra Coderch accepts and promotes those nocturnal photographs of his works from that same year onwards, presenting them in large size on the first page of his reviews in the Cuadernos de Arquitectura magazine (Figures 1 and 2).
Despite the enormous difference between the domestic program of both houses – and therefore in length and volume – Coderch deliberately seeks a visual account very similar to that of the house of Neutra, taking advantage of the experience and the dazzling success achieved by that night photography in the numerous international magazines in which it appears published.
In this way, when comparing the two images it is noticed that the frame of the Catasús allows to emulate the horizontal volume plane of the Kaufmann: with a visual depth constructed on the basis of planes parallel to the viewer, the covered cover of the first plane is shown, slightly raised by above the body of the bedroom in the background. This detail allows Shulman to hide the recessed volume of the upper floor and let the entire silhouette of the house be completely horizontal and below the mountainous profile of the background, thus creating a certain romantic stamp in a “pictorialist” key, little in keeping with its modernity architectural On the other hand, Catalá-Roca closes the plan more to concentrate on the domestic plot, since it does not have that natural framework.
This aspect makes the geometric construction of its shot more accurate and more faithful to the modern spirit of the Sitges house, showing the alignment of the roof of the porch with the long edge of the pool and revealing the ‘L’ floor that adopts the house around the private garden and the pool, now converted into a clear night mirror. Perhaps Coderch’s interest in Photography3 means that the final result of this night shot is largely conditioned by the architect’s visual control and compositional sense, something that Neutra does not do with Shulman’s counterpart (although it does with most of the photos) of that report, according to the testimony of the photographer4.
Very similar is the crepuscular light with which Catalá-Roca takes his shot, to avoid this strong imbalance by contrast between different areas of the same frame. However, the final result shows more differences, especially due to the experience and sophistication of Shulman’s work. This achieves the mythical image by combining several types of exposure mixing the contrast of lights and shadows optimal between the various negatives of the same shot5, something that Catalá-Roca does not manage to do. Shulman creates an unreal image of the house, superimposing on the final image the most suitable lights for each part of the frame, sometimes achieved even with mobile light sources that are subsequently removed. Catalá-Roca simply makes a real shot, a magnificent snapshot, but with the inconvenience of not having more artificial light sources than those installed in the house, which justifies the appearance of highly contrasted areas in the final image, lacking that extensive wealth of intermediate grays that provide a sensual and even glamorous6 quality to the Californian counterpart.
To all this we must add the assiduous collaboration between expert consultant in Lighting, Richard Kelly, and the architect Richard Neutra makes the architectural idea is reinforced by a
contemplating since its gestation a studied combination of artificial light sources. According to elly7, the
allows you to find the right character and comfort for each stay; the
it serves to emphasize and hierarchize the elements of the architectural scene; and the
—“play of brilliants”—,
places a series of flashes in a more figurative way. Although it has not been possible to determine the degree of intervention of Kelly in the Palm Springs house, it is nevertheless true that Neutra repeats many of the details tested with him in the previous lighting studies for the houses Lyndon (1943) or Miller (1937). ); namely, the indirect lighting of ceilings from the bottom upwards, the emphasis on certain walls bathed with greater intensity, the arrangement of continuous lines of fluorescence at the end of the cantilevered roofs on the outside of the house, and the placement of Certain spotlights in key positions such as the pool or after certain vegetable elements of the garden.
Obviously, Coderch, no matter how interested and attentive he was to Neutra’s contemporary work, has not yet managed to put these lighting resources into practice at the Catasús house – perhaps because 1956 is still too early to understand his artificial complexity – but uses very intentionally his best nighttime photo to represent his “modern” quality. We do not know exactly when Coderch could have seen for the first time that mythical photo of Neutra / Shulman’s “Desert House”, but its captivating visual appeal caused it to wander in the mind of the Catalan architect some time before that “objet trouvé”, printed in some magazine of the time, was interpreted in its own keys. In any case, the use of night photography since the mid-1950s confirms its decisive contribution as an informative tool of “the modern”, just at the time of the great take-off and widespread acceptance of modern architecture in Spain.
Rodrigo Almonacid [r-arquitectura] · PhD architect
Valladolid. September 2018
1 NIEDENTHAL, Simon: “Glamourized Houses: Neutra, Photography, and the Kaufmann House”, Journal of Architectural Education (1984-), vol.47, n.2, Blackwell Publishing – Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, noviembre de 1993, pp. 101-112. Véase extracto de entrevista a J. Shulman (p.102, nota 11).
2 DÍEZ BARREÑADA, Rafael: Coderch: variaciones sobre una casa. Barcelona: Fundación Caja de Arquitectos, colección ‘Arquíthesis’ n.12, 2002.
5 MULARD, Claudine: “Les Case Study Houses et le cas Shulman”, L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui, n.353, julio-agosto 2004, p.58. Citado en: DIEZ, Daniel: “Objetivo moderno. La fotografía de Julius Shulman y la construcción de la imagen de la arquitectura del sur de California”, Revista Indexada de Textos Académicos (rita_), n.2, octubre 2014, p.64.
6 We use the term “glamorous” in relation to the fact that the first time the photo of Shulman was published to disclose the Kaufmann house was in Life magazine (April 1949), and it did so by illustrating an article entitled “Glamourized Houses” and which S. Niedenthal uses in part for the title of his article (see note 1).
7 NEUMANN, Dietrich: “Theatre, Lights, and Architecture”. En: NEUMANN, D. (ed.): The Structure of Light. Richard Kelly and the Illumination of Modern Architecture. New Haven-London: Yale University Press, 2010, p. 31-32.
Excerpt from the full article titled: “Night photography of architecture, iconic disclosure tool of the first modern works in post-war Spain” (2018). Accessible in academia.edu