New York

Ezra Stoller, General Motors Technical Center, Eero Saarinen, Warren, MI, 1950, black-and-white photograph, 20 x 16".

Ezra Stoller, General Motors Technical Center, Eero Saarinen, Warren, MI, 1950, black-and-white photograph, 20 x 16".

Ezra Stoller

Yossi Milo Gallery

Ezra Stoller, General Motors Technical Center, Eero Saarinen, Warren, MI, 1950, black-and-white photograph, 20 x 16".

Beginning in roughly 1939, modernist architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Rudolph, Eero Saarinen, Marcel Breuer, and Richard Meier, among others, had photographer Ezra Stoller document their now-classic buildings—“classic” in themselves, but also because of Stoller’s exquisite “classicizing” of them. With deft assurance, Stoller imbued the structures with an aura of inevitability. Seen through his lens, their geometry seems eternal—timeless as the pyramids—and drawn to some perceptual seventh heaven. Thus, Fifth Avenue fades into wet darkness, leaving the 1954 Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company building, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, gloriously illuminated from within, transcending its environment as though it were a kind of abstract thing—which it is, of course, if one forgets its function.

Stoller renders the buildings ideal, pure—even ethereal. They have little solidity. Even when made of substantial material, like the white concrete used by Saarinen and Wright, the structures dissolve into insubstantial light. Human beings and automobiles, by contrast, appear impure and thus dispensable. The sweeping curve of the ceiling in Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center (1950)—echoed by a set of concentric steps—is boldly geometric and transcendentally luminous compared to the Buick station wagon on display below it. Although the automobile’s design, too, has curves, it looks transient and irrelevant, overshadowed by the surrounding forms. The man gazing at the vault in a second photograph of the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company building is also upstaged by his surroundings, as are the visitors to Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1959 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. They function as measures of space, as human figures often do in traditional landscape paintings.

By highlighting the buildings’ geometric qualities, Stoller’s photographs suggest, correctly, that the structures are best admired and contemplated as autonomous works of art, not lived in by human beings. This is clearer nowhere than in a 1949 image of a Marcel Breuer house erected in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The neo-Renaissance apartment buildings visible in the background can’t compete with the Breuer house’s pure geometry—but one can live privately in them, whereas the large, glass windows of Breuer’s building expose its inhabitants to scrutiny. Even when the buildings are naturalized (via the use of materials such as wood and stone), and appear to be outcroppings in a landscape, as does Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer’s Chamberlain Cottage (1942) in Wayland, Massachusetts, their geometry resists nature. The modernist “machine for living” is uninhabitable, which is why postmodern architectural theorist Charles Jencks famously called it a failure.

The architects entrusted Stoller with their visionary architecture, and, to a large extent, remained true to it in his visionary photographs. (The prints’ diminutive size—twenty by sixteen inches—however, makes the buildings seem more intimate than they are.) And that vision is in many ways seductive. But today, Stoller’s photographs are like memento mori conjuring a dead idea of architecture.

Donald Kuspit