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Glimpsing a Photographic Wonderland

The Miller House and Garden in Columbus, Indiana, is a truly remarkable place, notable for embodying outstanding work of its architect, Eero Saarinen, its landscape architect, Dan Kiley, and its interior designer, Alexander Girard.   Here, the stains of mid century modernism strike a chord whose resonance few others can equal.

Its visual resonance is amplified by having been recorded by two of the most important architectural photographers of the twentieth century, Ezra Stoller (1915-2004)  and Balthazar Korab (1926-  ).  As we work to understand the property and the changes it underwent, to have the photographs taken by these men is to sift a treasure almost beyond one’s wildest hope. Many preservation projects must rely on much less for visual documentation.  Imagine being immersed a career of genealogical and historical research and suddenly working on an individual whose every portrait had been taken by Cecil Beaton or Irving Penn!

Monica and Balthazar Korab, Photo by Mark Zelonis

Monica and Balthazar Korab, Photo by Mark Zelonis

My first look at Ezra Stoller’s work was in The Galveston That Was by Houston architect Howard Barnstone.  First published in 1966, the book contains photographs by Stoller and by Henri Cartier-Bresson, and is credited with dramatizing the importance of architectural preservation in the decayed coastal city.  Stoller captured the Miller House and Garden shortly after its completion, some of the images appearing in Architectural Forum of September 1958 and in an article titled “A New Concept of Beauty” in the February 1959 edition of House and Garden.  In keeping with the family’s wishes, the house was published without naming its owner or location.  Stoller’s images, however, assumed a life of their own, achieving great staying power and continuing to illustrate publications about the property decades later.

While Stoller’s visits to the Miller House and Garden were limited to a brief period just after the house’s completion, Korab made several trips to Columbus over many years and so developed an archive of images that captures a sense of evolution and change.  Judging from his images, Stoller’s interest seems to have been more in the house than the garden, with the landscape appearing primarily at the margins of his photographs.  In contrast, Korab’s work responds equally to the architecture and to the landscape, giving it tremendous value to the effort to unravel the garden’s secrets.  Eero Saarinen:  Buildings from the Balthazar Korab Archive, published in 2008, presents a significant sampling of his work at the Miller property.

In June of this year, I had the opportunity to travel to Balthazar Korab’s studio in Troy, Michigan, with Mark Zelonis, Ruth Lilly Deputy Director of Environmental and Historic Preservation at the IMA, in order to review hundreds of photographs.  For the better part of two days, we visited with Balthazar and Monica Korab at their home and studio, enjoying their generous and gracious hospitality in an atmosphere that combined photography, architecture, gardens, and history, all enlivened with the Korabs’ sense of humor and whimsy.  An additional delight was the chance to see the Korabs’ own garden, built over decades on the gentle slopes surrounding their 19th-century house.

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Korabs' Studio, Photo by Mark Zelonis

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Korabs' Garden, Photo by Mark Zelonis

It was a joy to be with them both, to review the images of the Miller House and Garden with the man who took them, and to listen to anecdotes of a career that can only be described as humbling.  We heard stories of his early association with Le Corbusier, of his entry in the design competition for the Sydney Opera House, his work in Italy during and after a devastating flood in the 1960s, and of his work in Saarinen’s office while it was developing designs for the Miller house.  Of the Millers’ living room fireplace, a simple but exquisitely detailed freestanding cylinder, Korab remarked that the lengthy process of arriving at so pure a design had been responsible for changing him from an architect to a photographer.

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Miller House Living Room, Photo by Balthazar Korab©

We spoke of his work to photograph the model for Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center, which was so large that Korab had to rent a space to accommodate both the model and the necessary photographic equipment.  Monica Korab quipped at one point that Balthazar had photographed most of the works of what she called the “brand name” architects of the twentieth century.  I asked about Philip Johnson’s house for the Houston collectors and philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil (coincidentally, it was they who supported publication of The Galveston That Was).   In a moment, my inquiry was rewarded with a large file of color transparencies that recorded the idiosyncratic glory that resulted when the Menils, great collectors of surrealist art, engaged couturier Charles James to design the home’s interiors.  Another treat was to see photographs of Alexander Girard’s residence in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and to gain some insight into how his taste intersected with that of the Millers in designing and decorating their interiors.  Almost as an afterthought, out of the files came images of the interiors of Georgia O’Keefe’s house.  I was reeling by this point, feeling myself on the edge of a body of work so vast I could barely see into it, let alone comprehend it.

Balthazar Korab’s Genius Loci:  Cranbrook was my memento of the trip to Michigan.  Beautiful as this book is, however, I will remember the visit more for having been in the presence of so deep a repository of experience, of so keen a visual intelligence, whose work has helped shape our perception of the work of the 20th century’s greatest architects.

Filed under: Art, Design, Local

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