The Birth Of Midcentury Modernism, As Photographed By Its Architects

If Instagram existed back in the day, Pierre Koenig and Fritz Block would’ve been blowing up your feed with their architectural snapshots.

Architectural photographers can make us fall in love with buildings–and today, smartphones and Instagram have given the medium new life, letting us act like spatial tourists, peering into structures that might not be accessible.


But what about iconic buildings from the past, that may not be open to the public today? Typically, only a few “official” photos might exist of a given historically significant design, often showing the building from one or two specific angles. We’re left wondering what–or who–was left out of the official frame.

Good news: the University of Southern California just digitized 1,300 architectural photographs dating from the midcentury. It’s an eye-candy jackpot for design history buffs–and what I’d imagine an architecturally inclined Instagram feed from the 1950s and 1960s would look like.

Captured by famed Case Study architect Pierre Koenig and Fritz Block, the owner of a color slide company, the photographs show buildings by the likes of Richard Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright, Albert Frey, and John Lautner, among others.

Many of the snapshots are more off-the-cuff than the iconic images of celebrated photographers like Julius Shulman and Balthazar Korab. Instead, they offer a rare insider’s look at pioneering architecture from the midcentury era, and reveal never-before-seen angles of some of the most familiar spaces.

These homes are legendary, in part, because of the way they’ve been depicted by photographers and filmmakers in the past–and these images show us a side of these structures that’s entirely new, and often surprising. In Blade Runner, Wright’s Ennis House takes on a nightmarish, dystopian vibe; through Block’s lens it seems perched in a tropical paradise. Koenig’s famed nighttime shot of the Stahl House’s precarious cantilever symbolized the pinnacle of 1960s L.A. cool whereas another angle shows a much cozier side of the space.

See for yourself in the full public database here and scope a few highlights in the slide show above.


All Images: via USC Digital Library

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.