Remembering Julius Shulman

Julius Shulman, NY Times Photo

Julius Shulman, the preeminent photographer of American modernist architecture, died on Wednesday at his home in the Los Angeles hills at the age of 98. I was lucky enough to spend two days with him at that home – one he commissioned Rafael Soriano to design for him in 1947.

I met Julius quite by accident, and it was love at first sight.

On Monday, 10 September 2001, I received a panicked call from Glenna Kyle, Assistant General Counsel of Exxon Corporation – or, more to the point, of the newly merged Exxon-Mobil – giving me an urgent assignment. The habitually scrambling Exxon Law Department was even more upside-down than usual, having inherited an enormous docket of impossibly mishandled cases from the chronically fucked-up Mobil Law Department, which the merger had, at least, finally put out of its misery. Mobil had a case set for trial the following Monday in San Francisco which had received little or no preparation. Glenna’s first call was to fire Mobil’s lawyer in San Francisco; her second was to advise me that I was going to trial in less than a week in a case neither of us could know much about. (This, incidentally, was not the last insane, eleventh-hour trial assignment I was to receive during the Exxon-Mobil transition.)

The case was of a type: one of the tens-of-thousands filed by construction tradesmen throughout the United States, alleging lung injuries as a consequence of work with asbestos containing materials over the course of their careers. The plaintiff had worked for decades as a union painter, allegedly cheek-by-jowl with drywallers installing asbestos containing sheetrock and asbestos-containing joint compounds at construction sites throughout Southern California. The companies that mined, milled, and manufactured the offending products – often in full knowledge and conscious disregard of the health implications for those who would be using them – were long-since bankrupted by the litigation; so this plaintiff, who would eventually die of a lung cancer having everything to do with his lifelong cigarette habit and nothing to do with his occupational asbestos exposure, was suing the owners of the buildings into which asbestos-containing products had been installed.

One such building, it was claimed, was the former Mobil Oil Building in downtown Los Angeles, built in 1952 as the company’s West Coast headquarters. My task was to learn as much about the building as humanly possible in less than a week and, by some alchemy I couldn’t quite foresee, turn that information into admissible evidence.

I called the Los Angeles Building Department for advice. Where was I going to get hold of drawings for this building that Mobil no longer owned? The woman with whom I spoke had an idea: the architecture library at UCLA contains considerable documentation concerning the development of the city, including its downtown. She suggested that I make that my first stop. I booked my airline ticket for the following afternoon, and would spend all of Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday doing spadework.

As it turned out, planes weren’t flying anywhere in America on Tuesday afternoon, or on Wednesday morning, for that matter. With my time running desperately short, I drove to LA.

The UCLA Architecture Library was, indeed, a good place to start. As it happens, the Mobil Building was historically noteworthy, at least for students of urban development: it was the first high-rise office building to incorporate its own parking structure. The reference librarian had an idea where I might find old photographs of the building: the rare book and manuscript library. Gaining admittance to this facility is no mean feat, even armed with a note of introduction from the architecture reference librarian. I was divested of my worldly possessions (writing implements and cameras being the biggest no-nos – and, of course, I had both) and fitted with sterile, white cotton gloves and escorted to a carrel where two folders of photographs were delivered. Eureka. There was not only a beautifully statuesque shot of the recently finished building, there were also a couple of the building taken during construction. I immediately inquired about obtaining high-resolution copies. “That’s no problem,” advised the librarian, “assuming you can get permission from the copyright holder.” Surely whoever took the photos in the early 1950s would be dead-and-gone by now, I thought. The librarian flipped-over the photos. “Oh,” he said, “These were taken by Julius Shulman. He’s still around. He lives here in Los Angeles.” I stepped outside the library, dialed 411 on my cell phone, and, two minutes later, Julius and I were speaking; and within another five minutes, I had an appointment to meet him at his home the next morning.

We spent hours over the better part of two days pouring through boxes in Julius’s studio, all stuffed with prints, negatives, and magazines containing his work. Julius seemed mystified by his own filing system, and in absolutely no hurry to unearth the correct box. I too was in no rush, notwithstanding my need to get back to San Francisco and to figure out how to spin the little information I’d obtained into some kind of legal defense. Each box had a story; and every story was worth hearing. Many of the boxes contained images of iconic buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Mies Van Der Rohe, Raphael Soriano, Pierre Keonig, John Lautner, Charles Eames, and others.

MBJ and Julius Shulman at Julius's Studio, Los Angeles

We spent two days talking architecture, and life, and photography. I told Julius of my childhood fascination with modern architecture, nurtured by my library of books about Frank Lloyd Wright buildings (from my mother) and my cherished eleventh birthday present (from Rae Paddock): LeCorbusier’s Toward a New Architecture. Julius told me that he knew even less about modern architecture than he did about photography when he started shooting houses for Richard Neutra. But he was thoughtful and meticulous about the work; and eventually he developed both a command of photographic technique and an intuitive approach to explicating the idioms and gestures of the modern vernacular.

Julius saw himself as an advocate for the architecture. Specifically, he aimed to portray not only the paradoxical richness of its formal austerity, but also to dispel the meme that the buildings were unlivable. Julius explained that he composed two kinds of photographs: one displaying the sculptural qualities of a building and another demonstrating the way in which the structures accommodated the contemporary, middle class lifestyle, particularly as it was evolving within the West Coast imagination. His most successful photographs did both.

By Saturday afternoon, my time was well-and-truly up. I needed to get back to San Francisco to ready myself for court on Monday. I told Julius that, if we could not find his original photographs of the Mobil Building, I could simply obtain copies of the prints from the UCLA Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Naturally, the next box in which we looked contained the treasure we sought. Julius remembered the building well, though not fondly. In addition to the photographs I’d seen at the library, there were a number of other interesting shots, along with a copy of the magazine in which they were published. Of particular interest to me was a photograph depicting the installation of a new, modular system of hanging demising walls between interior office spaces, which incorporated wooden paneling. This meant, of course, that there had been relatively little sheetrock work in the building.

I had a story around which to build a defense. I had a photograph. And best of all, I had a witness.

Although I couldn’t be sure of the exact schedule the trial would follow or when I would need Julius to come to San Francisco to testify, we agreed that he would arrive a day early, would stay with me and Yoo-Mi, and would photograph our house on Telegraph Hill, which we’d designed with help of our friend Orlando Diaz-Azcuy. The house had been photographed for several magazine spreads and one hard-cover book; but what a supreme honor it would be to have it photographed by Julius!

As I departed, Julius gave me a special gift: two of his books – Julius Shulman: Architecture and Its Photography and a new large-format collection of his photographs of Neutra’s houses – inscribed.

Back in San Francisco, Mobil was dismissed from the lawsuit before opening statements, following our disclosure to the court that we had both documentary evidence and a witness from which to argue that plaintiff had no asbestos exposure at the Mobil Building, and plaintiff had identified no witnesses to supplement his own lack of recollection. I called Julius to tell him he would not need to come to San Francisco to testify. We wished each other well; and I never saw or spoke to him again. That was my loss. Now, Julius is lost to all of us.

7 Responses to “Remembering Julius Shulman”

  1. 1 Naren 23 July 2009 at 8:48 pm

    Just looked up Julius Shulman and his work. Amazing work! And an amazing person too, judging from his interaction with you.

  2. 2 mbjesq 23 July 2009 at 11:45 pm


    It is the nature of my life to bump-me-up against amazing people, quite by accident. For example, while working on the LBNL Darfur Cookstove project and seeking a manufacturing source in Bombay, I happened to meet… you. It’s excellent the way these things work-out.


  3. 3 Deepthi 24 July 2009 at 5:00 pm

    Wow! Your two days at Schulman’s is probably a dream come true for anyone interested in architecture. His passing away is indeed a great loss but I am sure his legacy will live own in countless university libraries & with a few fortunate individuals, like you. :)

  4. 4 the peoples program 24 July 2009 at 10:26 pm

    All I can say is WOW! I hadn’t heard of Julius Schulman until reading this post. I Googled him and some of his work; he will definately go down as one of the best. He was blessed to have lived a complete life!

  5. 5 buiding and construction magazine 27 July 2009 at 3:24 am

    Good your site work good your work i liked It’s excellent the way these things work-out.

  6. 6 viral 29 July 2009 at 1:45 pm


    wonderful story — a fitting tribute to a great person!


  7. 7 millyonair 10 August 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Wonderfully well written tribute! As ever, your posts are a pleasure to read.

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