Interview with Julius Schulman

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Interview for PIN-UP magazine, pp 40-45, Fall – Winter 2007 {jpeg} [PDF]

On a sunny Los Angeles Sunday afternoon, I arrived at the appointed time with my assistant Matt to the hilltop residence of Julius Schulman. The house is reached by a long steep driveway off Mullholland Drive. At the top is a quiet wooded retreat. We rang the bell, but there was no answer. We called and left a message. We waited another half hour and then decided to leave. That evening I got a call from Julius, and we scheduled another meeting later in the week. He later recounted how Benedikt Taschen had suddenly arrived into town just before we were to meet that Sunday, and took him up to his Lautner house, the Chemisphere, to show him his new three volume monograph for the first time.

When we finally met a few days later, he cheerfully welcomed me into his studio from behind his desk. He was sporting a bright red pair of Marilyn Monroe-printed suspenders. He obviously enjoyed the frequent ritual of greeting the young admirer into his modern den. We spent the next few hours talking about his life and work, touring his house and gardens. I was impressed by how in the moment he was. He was much more likely to veer the discussion towards what we could see in front of us at that moment, instead of speaking in generalities, abstractions or historical references. I was also surprised by how keen he was to talk about his land, trees, garden and animals, even more than about his own house or architecture in general.

At the end of our conversation, he was showing me photos he had taken through the years. We lingered on one in particular, a photo taken from a neighboring roof looking into the large windows of a modern high-ceilinged living room below, with fireplace aglow. He realized that this was the “Santa Claus” view of the house, and this really got him excited. He said that he had looked at this photo hundreds of times and never thought of this before. He got out pen and paper and made a note of the page number to have an assistant make a slide of this image for his next lecture. He wanted to say to any children that might be in the audience: “Hey kids, this is Santa Claus’s view when he parks his deer on the roof, and gets ready to go down the chimney to deliver the presents”.  This was the most animated I had seen him all day, after a three hour visit, it was this one little story for kids that made him really light up.

FH Being on this property and in this house for so long, how have your feelings about it changed? In a lot of your early photos we often see the buildings just built, they’re brand new and the landscape is restrained and bare, then you go back 50 years later and the landscape grows in and the house mellows….

JS When I first saw the property I knew that was it, there was nothing on it, just a little brush up on the hill. As a child growing up on a farm in Connecticut, we were surrounded by forests and a lot of land. When I came out here in 1920, I thought, this is great! I want to live in the hills and simulate that sort of landscape. I was 10 years old when we arrived. I bought this property in 1947, we moved in in 1950 and in 1951 I began the landscaping.  All of the trees, shrubbery and vines were planted by me. I landscaped it and built the retaining walls with broken concrete from my neighbor’s property. I created a jungle way up on this hill. We have animals here. Every day people come here and take a walk into the back and they see a couple of bucks.

FH We just saw one this weekend when we stopped by!

JS Yes, everyone does, they have those big antlers, there are two of them. They’re brothers. Actually my gardener, Mike, who lives out in Santa Clarita, was saying that they like hay. So this weekend he brought bales of hay to spread around the property, to entice the deer. I like having them around. When people come to visit I tell them to go behind the house but don’t talk to loud, so as not to scare them away.

FH Some people might think when looking at a photo of a modern building from the 40’s or 50’s that this is the perfect moment of the house, when it’s photographed right after it has been built. But then you visit it 50 years later and landscape grows in and the deer come….

JS Look at what I’ve accomplished here in 50 years. All of the trees were planted from seedlings. There is a little pond that attracts animals. It’s like a paradise on top of the hill.

FH So you would say the house is better than it was when first built?

JS Oh definitely!

FH What is it like for you to visit buildings that you photographed decades ago, to see how they’ve changed with time?

JS I do that all the time! There was the house on Mullholland that I first photographed for Neutra after it was first built. They couldn’t afford to finish the landscaping right away after construction had finished, so he had me come back a few years later after the landscaping had been planted to take some more pictures. I went back every year to photograph it.

FH So the story didn’t stop on that first day, it continued.

JS Like my house, when I first photographed it in 1956 for Progressive Architecture, it was bare all around and the landscaping I had planted hadn’t grown in. Now it’s difficult to photograph this house because it’s hidden. I planted a jungle! When I was a child I lived in a forested area like this and I had that in the back of my mind when I created this place.

FH It really is a jungle. That’s really interesting to think about this life that exists outside of the building, and how that affects the building over time.

JS I’ve been in this house for over fifty years, and nobody lives in a house that long anymore.

FH That’s true. I bet this house has been a real constant in your life, the thing that is the most stable, isn’t it?

JS People come here to visit me from all over the world, they can’t believe it! We’re in  the middle of a big city. This is Los Angeles,  4 or 5 million people, who knows how many we have. It’s so peaceful up here on these two acres. People come to visit from Japan, and they say this is Los Angeles? Such a big city, but it’s like being in the country up here.

FH How has L.A. changed since you’ve been here? You’ve been here for so long and you’ve seen so much.

JS Well, don’t forget that in 1927, when I arrived, there were 576,000 people here. By 1930, and the next census, there were nearly one million. Double in ten years! Then you count all of those people from Santa Barbara to San Diego, north to south. You can safely say that most of the population of southern California has been densely packed into that relatively small area.

FH It doesn’t feel like we’re in the middle of all of that, way up here does it?

JS Occasionally a helicopter comes by, and that’s about it, the only sign of the vast city beyond.

FH Do you look at very much contemporary architecture? Do you look at all the current magazines?

JS Look at the pile of magazines surrounding us here! Look at the books all over the place!

FH So you keep on top of what is going on now.

JS Well of course I do! It’s my job.

FH Do you have any thoughts about how architecture has evolved in Los Angeles from when you first arrived, to where it is now?

JS I’m glad you used the term “evolved”. It happens gradually. In the new three volume monograph of my work by Taschen, you can see the whole progression. Modernism is very much alive, you can see it through the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s , 70’s, 80’s and through today. It’s been 70 years now and it still looks good.

FH I’ve had the pleasure to meet a few people, maybe in their 80’s or 90’s now, who were, like yourself, original clients for these early modern architects in Los Angeles. They still live in these house, there is something about them that I think is so unique. They took this early risk to hire these young architects, to build these radical houses for them…..

JS Well, wait a minute, I’m not so sure it was such a risk. In my case, in 1949 I had hired Soriano to design this house. The blessing in my life has been to cherish the concept of Soriano’s steel and glass house that he designed for me. There are two acres up here that you can spread out on. You can actually have a glass house. There are no neighbors up against you. In recent years, the city acquired 53 acres of land on top of the hill behind me that will be managed by the conservancy and will never be built on. I have my animals. There are possums and skunks and racoons, foxes, deer, bobcats. Some of them will come up to my little pond here for water.

FH Have you become more interested in landscape, plants and animals as you’ve aged? Or is that something you’ve been interested in…..

JS …as a child. We had all of those animals around us when I was growing up. I’ve always been interested.

FH Do you think most of the early modernists here had the same sensitivity to the landscape?

JS No! Neutra thought it got in the way of the architecture, but Schindler was one of the few that was interested in the trees and the landscaping. And today, people don’t stay put, they move around so much, they don’t make the investment. They sell they house before things have a chance to grow and then buy another house.

FH Maybe for that reason they don’t make the early investment in the landscape that you did here. You don’t invest a lot of time and money in a landscape if you are not going to be around to see it grow.

JS I planted every tree on the property from a little sapling, redwoods that are now over 50 feet tall. It’s a blessing. I used to spend a lot of time in the hills around here. On Mullholland I can point out the name of every tree.

FH So you used to spend a lot of time going for hikes…

JS I love nature! Anytime I wanted I could climb up the mountains here, I’d go alone, it was great.

FH Were there architects that you shared that with? That had a similar affinity….

JS ….No, no!

FH Isn’t that funny, you’d think that these architects were…

JS …They were too busy making a living, making buildings.

FH In some ways it’s kind of similar, I would imagine, dealing with the landscape as you’re photographing from the outside, and then from the inside, how you photograph the people and how they live….the life inside and out.

JS Being inside looking out, you’re still in nature. Look at where we are sitting now. Look at the garden though those windows. Imagine the feeling I get, I’ve been sitting in this spot for 50 years! Nothing’s changed in my life, but what does change are the wonderful shadows of the trees on that wall. And it’s so wonderful in the morning when you come in here with the light striking that wall from the east, and the sun moves behind me, and it will go over your shoulder, into the south and west, west is way over in that direction and the sun hits this wall, it’s an amazing visual experience that changes continuously. The shadows shape the morning light….

FH A lot of people say that Neutra and Schindler were opposites, and that one has to choose one or the other, because they represented two opposite ways of thinking.

JS I liked Schindler a great deal, but when I selected an architect for my house, I chose Soriano. I knew it couldn’t be Neutra, he was too rigid a person. He designed according to what HE wanted. Soriana was rigid too, that’s why he died a pauper, he drove people away from him. If someone said, “Mr. Soriano, there’s a great view up there, can we just angle the roof up a bit to see that?” he’d just grumble, he would get very angry. If they persisted, he’d say “there’s the door, goodbye!”. Soriano was very focused, he had rigid ideas about the grid, steel framing, and glass which I accepted, because it was appropriate for the site. I had plenty of land, so I didn’t have a problem with all of the glass. Modern architects didn’t think of privacy in those days.

FH Why is that do you think?

JS Because they were so wedded to the concept of what ‘modern’ was. This was a problem on small lots, where the architects used all this glass facing their neighbors, and the owners would have to put up blinds or plant trees to shield the views in.

FH Who would you have hired if you had a 50 foot lot instead of this two acre lot?

JS Well, I  must say, you mentioned Schindler before? I knew all of the architects in that period and Schindler was high on my list. I respected him greatly.

FH Did you know his wife Pauline? I’m curious about the events that she had at their house on Kings Road.

JS When I met her, by that time, those had passed, but I knew about them.

FH That would have been in the 20’s?

JS Yes, exactly. They lived a very open, bohemian life. Much more informal than Neutra.

FH Did you know the Eames very well?

JS Yes, his own house is very special. He was very creative with available materials, prefabricated industrial steel and glass. In those days you didn’t have Home Depot where you could go to get everything you need to build a house.

FH That’s right I hadn’t really thought about that.

JS Ok, well let’s go into the house and I’ll show you around….

FH That would be great….

[as we walk down the garden path he shows me a sunken area  near the house]

JS Every ounce of water that comes from the sky on to the roof pours down into here. It is a dead level roof, but fortunately it all drains to this one spot and runs down this chain. So no water is lost in the downpours we have here, it all stays on the property goes back into the ground here.

FH We need to learn those lessons again don’t we? We finally got some rain last week too….

JS Yes, we really needed that.

[back in the house we sit in the living room and he shows me his copy of the massive new three volume monograph of his work that Benedict Taschen had just dropped off that weekend]

FH Is there anything you feel that young architects need to know today?

[I make the mistake of asking this question as I was paging though the book]

JS You can’t look at the pictures and talk at the same time. You can’t thumb through the book like you’re doing now, you’re flipping the pages without looking! To answer your question it’s right here in your hands! You don’t realize what you’re seeing. There are thousands of books available for young architects today that have important stories from the past for them. Benedikt Taschen said in the essay he did for this mongraph, he made a statement…. here, open that book, look at the index…

FH Here it is, page 30: “The Living Memory of Modernism”

JS Yes,  exactly, that is what he says in the preface, that through these books, young architects can learn what was done before them, what they can gain by understanding what happened before they were born….

Fritz Haeg interview for Pin-Up Magazine with Julius Schulman at his house in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles on September 25th, 2007