Michael Webb grew up in London and now lives in Los Angeles in the Richard Neutra apartment that Charles and Ray Eames once called home. His twenty-six books on architecture and design include Modernist Paradise: Niemeyer House, Boyd Collection; Venice, CA: Art and Architecture in a Maverick Community; Brave New Houses: Adventures in Southern California Living; and Modernism Reborn: Mid-Century American Houses. Webb is a regular contributor to the New York Times, the Architectural Review, Frame, Mark, and Culture + Travel.

 

R E C O N S T R U C T I N G R E A L I T Y
Mi c h a e l We b b

 

I CAN’T SAY I’VE DREAMED of Jenny Okun, but I think about her every morning when I wake, for the first thing I see as I open my eyes is her composite portrait of the Albert Bridge in London hanging on my bedroom wall. In some ways, it’s an odd choice. I grew up in London and have fond memories of the elegant suspension bridge that links Chelsea to Battersea across the Thames. However, I’m a committed modernist, and I could easily have chosen a seductive mosaic of a new building I admire by Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers, or Santiago Calatrava—architects who are also among Okun’s favorites. Instead, I picked this nineteenth-century gem, both for the geometrical complexity of the composition and for the provocative juxtaposition of the decorative and functional.

 

The Victorians tolerated nudity in history paintings, but buildings, like human bodies, were covered up. In an age when engineers were pushing cast iron to daring extremes, the proprieties had to be observed. The platforms of London’s St. Pancras railway station are canopiedby a soaring iron vault that was once the widest in the world. This technological marvel is entirely concealed behind a craggy red-brick Gothic hotel that could have sprung from the imagination of Sir Walter Scott. The Albert Bridge, named for Queen Victoria’s consort and built in 1873, clearly reveals its structure. However, unless you are an engineer, your eyes are drawn to the clustered iron columns with their foliated Corinthian capitals, without sparing much attention for the riveted straps that support the roadway. Okun gives equal weight to both and overlays them—to emphasize the contradiction of styles and the abstract beauty of the tracery. 

 

This bridge is framed by the windows of Foster and Partners, located close by on the Battersea waterfront, and it may have inspired the Millau Viaduct that the firm recently completed in central France. Even Okun might have a hard time shooting a structure that extends more than a mile over a gorge that is a thousand feet deep and one in which the engineering admits of no artistic deception. I hope she’ll try, because it is a wonder of twenty-first-century engineering, in which the beauty grows directly out of the slender, bifurcated piers and the fanned cables that gleam like celestial harps from afar.

 

I remember how inspired she was by another visionary project—Richard Rogers’s Millennium Dome, down the Thames at Greenwich. It is less a dome than a gently curved membrane, stretched taut by cables radiating from splayed steel trusses, and it promised to be a worthy successor to the Lloyds Building and to Rogers’s fledgling collaboration with Renzo Piano on the Pompidou Center in Paris. Okun and I went there together during construction, when the vast interior was still a muddy expanse that made the huge earthmovers look like toys. The project architect took us to the hub of the circle and showed us how, by some trick of perspective, the gently angled ribs around the periphery seemed suddenly to snap into a vertical position.

 

It was a typical London day—brief downpours alternating with brilliant flashes of sun—and we dodged inside and out, as Okun captured the play of light and shadow on the translucent canopy. Though she was unable to trap the illusion, she did master the scale and the thrilling sweep of open space, bathed in a soft glow from above. We came away walking on air, little knowing that within a year the Dome would be cluttered with tacky exhibits and dismissed as an extravagant folly.

 

What makes Okun’s work so different from conventional architectural photography is its fragmentation, abstraction, and emphasis on a few telling details. She looks harder and longer at buildings than most architectural aficionados do and sees things that escape our attention. Her compositions often defy easy identification, having taken on an identity of their own. Sometimes a single detail is enlarged and repeated and it may not be the one others have singled out as a tool for recognition. I was living in Washington, D.C., when I. M. Pei built the East Building of the National Gallery of Art and spent many happy hours in the lofty atrium, hypnotized by the scarlet Calder mobile that revolved slowly overhead. Okun looked beyond that aerial ballet to focus on the hooks from which the mobile is suspended and on the triangular skylights with serried louvers that block direct sunlight. A single red rod punctuates the sharply angled monochromatic grid. Pei’s architecture, which serves as both frame and backdrop for art, is restored to primacy.

 

Even today, most architectural photography is like Beaux Arts drawing, presenting buildings as idealized objects, detached from their surroundings, with formally composed interiors. The goal is to project an image—of corporate power, institutional dignity, or gracious living — that flatters the egos of the architect and client, while seducing editors and readers. Julius Shulman in Los Angeles, Hedrich Blessing in Chicago, and Ezra Stoller in New York were masters of their craft. They created iconic images that embodied the spirit of an era or a place and helped forge the reputations of Richard Neutra, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, and other great modern formgivers. Despite moments of high drama, as in Shulman’s legendary image of two women in white in a living room that seems to float out over a magic carpet of lights, their priority was to document what they saw. The aesthetic was pictorial, and their static, precisely balanced compositions were achieved with elaborate lighting and tripod-mounted large-format cameras. Their successors may use lightweight digital equipment and rely on natural light, but, except for the switch from black and white to color, the conventions of architectural photography haven’t changed much in fifty years.

 

In contrast, Okun’s images are hand-held, asymmetrical, and kinetic. Over the more than twenty-five years she has been photographing buildings, she has gone from using wide-angle to telephoto lenses, notably a 150mm Hasselblad, and has recently switched from film to digital, but her mode of operation hasn’t changed significantly. She deconstructs and then reconstructs buildings, animating them in cinematic sequences. “It starts intuitively, looking for pieces that go together,” she explains. “I construct the final picture in my head, setting up overlapping images and establishing a rhythm from one shot to the next. I try to discover the essence of the building and make the eye travel around it in the right sequence. The goal is to capture the excitement I felt when I was there.”

 

There is a feeling of restless energy that provides a fresh take on familiar landmarks and makes you want to venture out in search of new work. The images of Christian de Portzamparc’s Cité de la Musique in Paris suggest frames from an animated film; it’s as though you are hearing music as you look. The Alcoa Building in Pittsburgh resembles a tribal necklace made of high-tech elements. Okun sees Calatrava’s Lyon-Satolas TGV train station at the Lyon airport in France as a giant butterfly that has just landed and not yet folded its wings.

 

Everyone—and ambitious architects in particular—wants to know how Okun chooses her subjects. “I’ve usually seen the latest work in a magazine and I look for buildings that have great shadows that create sculptural effects,” she says. “If they have color, I’m there. Simple buildings with character are best; there are almost too many choices with a Gehry or Rogers design.” Antoine Predock’s United Blood Services Building in Albuquerque scored on two counts: It’s a plain block painted a searing red. And it inspired Okun to interrupt a family expedition to Santa Fe for a few hours, while she bathed in red and discovered unexpected angles.

 

In the twenty years that she has lived in Beverly Hills, Okun has chronicled the work of L.A.’s most adventurous architects. Frank Gehry has provided her with a steady stream of inspiration, and she has created some of the defining images of two of his masterworks. She was especially successful in capturing the soft, cushiony character of the titanium scales that clad the Bilbao Guggenheim like a shimmering cloak, in contrast to the sleek, sharp, etched-steel sails that wrap the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The dizzying ascent of Morphosis is traced from the tiny 2-4-6-8 House in Venice to the bristling fortress of the Caltrans headquarters downtown.

 

Even mundane buildings can yield beautiful images through the process of transmutation. Architects in London were incensed that Okun chose a spec office building as a subject and exhibited images of it in their hallowed galleries, but she insisted it was beautiful in the way it reflected the clouds. Another daring choice was the public lavatory in west London, designed by maverick architect Piers Gough as a local landmark in green tile with a signature clock, which becomes a magical labyrinth in Okun’s photograph.

 

For all the madcap improvisation of Okun’s life and the spontaneity of her work, the images are meticulously finished. Foliage and people have no place in her compositions. She carefully painted out the pigeons that alight on the coiled parapet of the Guggenheim Museum in New York—a laborious task in the years before Photoshop. But she chose to leave in the penguins waddling up the intertwined ramps of Berthold Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool at the London Zoo, as a gesture of thanks to Peter Palumbo, who paid for the restoration of this modernist masterpiece.

 

“With traditional buildings you spend a lot of time trying to look past the details,” Okun explains. “Some buildings, like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, are too rich and don’t work for me. With Florence Cathedral, I eliminated color to make the building appear stark and gritty.” Often, she uses color in an expressive way, turning the white cube of the Robert Graham–designed Doumani house on Venice beach in Los Angeles into a jagged tracery in tones of blue. Strategies of this kind compel the viewer to reexamine the buildings she’s transformed and give them renewed appreciation.

 

Over the years, Okun has built up a roster of close and creative friends, and they provide her with a constant stream of suggestions. She returned several times to the tough, raw house that Aviva Carmy, an Israeli-born architect who apprenticed to Morphosis, built for herself above Beverly Hills and rented out for movie shoots. And she drove into the desert beyond Los Angeles to find Josh Schweitzer’s Monument— a playfully inflated name for a vacation house comprised of three colored stucco cubes perched among the rocks near Joshua Tree National Monument.  Sometimes, she discovers wonderful subjects by chance, such as a factory turned house in Lecce, a baroque town in the southern tip of Italy that was hosting an exhibition of her work.

 

Some jobs come as commissions. The J. Paul Getty Museum wanted a poster, and Okun created a bestseller. The Tate Modern in London requested an image they could use on a variety of merchandise, from folding umbrellas to T-shirts. An Indianapolis law firm commissioned images of all their clients’ buildings. Six months pregnant and eager to get to London for the birth, Okun gave herself six days to shoot eighteen buildings and was able to net fifteen in a frantic dash around the city.

 

Still more breathless was a last-minute request over lunch for an image of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, to be used as the cover of a catalogue that was about to go to press. She was still recovering from a four-year ordeal with trigeminal neuralgia, which affected her jaw and made it painful to speak. She scribbled a note of acceptance, and raced downtown to retrieve her camera and buy film in order to take the shots before her plane left for London that evening. Arriving at the museum, she discovered that the only place from which she could get a tight shot of the signature window of Marcel Breuer’s building was from the center of traffic-thronged Madison Avenue. That required a kind of Russian roulette—dashing into the street whenever the light turned red, focusing, shooting, and dashing back when the light turned green to a chorus of horns and curses. She had the film processed in a couple of hours, bought a new Apple laptop to manipulate the imagery, and flew to London, where she spent twenty hours straight to finish the job and Fed Ex the composite to New York.

 

There’s a streak of madness in every good artist, but these adventures are atypical. “There are way too many buildings to choose from and it takes a long time to finish, so I only complete fifteen works in a year,” Okun says. “I do it by city when I travel, shooting a lot more buildings than I end up using. I prefer making repeated visits and taking a long time to explore buildings in order to find their power and presence. With some buildings, the impact is very emotional. I work with lines and shadows to recreate the feeling I had when I first saw them. However, if I’m unlikely to get back, I try to do everything at once.”

 

Okun’s night shots have a special beauty. A triptych of Christmas lights on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills—a scene that sadly lacks allure when seen close-up, except, perhaps, to an impressionable six year old—becomes as mysterious as a Hubble Space Telescope photo of a distant galaxy with its trails and gauzy clouds of luminous gas. The fountains of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas suggest an alternative universe of fiery hoops. The towers of Harrods department store in west London, outlined in tiny lights, become the stuff of fairytale, a castle for Sleeping Beauty.

 

I have a special fondness for the luminous tracery of the Flamingo on the Las Vegas Strip. Tom Wolfe noted that, in the early years, the signs upstaged the hotels. “They revolve, they oscillate, they soar—in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless,” he gushed. In the early 1980s, I went to Vegas to complete a book on neon, spending patient hours in the darkness, taking time exposures of this and other vintage signs. Most have been demolished, swept away in favor of prosaic billboards and the Pharaonic towers that replaced the original road houses. Okun’s images celebrate the unabashed exuberance of a vanished era.

 

Indeed, to the extent that much of the world’s architecture survives only as imagery, Okun’s pictures do double duty as art and record.  First signage, then buildings will be swept away by the relentless quest for larger, newer, more profitable structures, and not just in Las Vegas. Neglect, shifts of taste, and changes in ownership will take their toll. These images, assembled and refined over hours and days, are the product of microseconds, a fleeting glimpse of reality filtered through an artist’s eyes and enriched by her vision.