Photography changes our experience and understanding of cities

Allan Shulman

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Allan Shulman [ BIO ]

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Allan Shulman

Allan Shulman, architect, urban designer, and writer, focuses on themes of tropical architecture, housing, and regional design histories. His most recent book is Miami Modern Metropolis: Paradise and Paradox in Midcentury Architecture and Planning and he co-authored Miami Architecture: An AIA Guide to Downtown, the Beaches, and Coconut Grove and The Making of Miami Beach 1933-1942: The Architecture of Lawrence Murray Dixon. A Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Shulman is an assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture and founding principal of the architectural firm Shulman + Associates.

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Allan Shulman, architect and assistant professor, University of Miami School of Architecture, focuses on the ways photography impacts the development, history, and marketing of modern cities.

Photography can help to define our understanding of cities, which are too complex to be grasped in their totality. Sometimes the varied meanings of structures and artifacts, for example, can be more closely parsed through the power of the lens. Aerial photographs lay bare the patterns of a city’s construction; street views frame its urban spaces; architectural photography documents the iconography and material substance of city structures. And recently, scalable photographic images in programs such as Google Earth, present panoptic and zoomable aerial and street views that can make every part of a city available to anyone with internet access.

Photography makes the stories and details of cities accessible in yet another important way. Images can reveal the historical layers that are a part of a city’s autobiography, and that condition its identity. Miami Beach is an interesting case study of the narrative power of photography, a modern city whose entire history can be traced through photographic images. Photographs captured its native wilderness, the dredging that transformed the landscape into real estate, and the first pioneer wood and coral rock houses built there in the first decades of the 20th century. Photos narrate the development of a resort there, capturing first the Mediterranean Revival fantasies of the 1920s, and then the modern confections of the 1930s. Photos depicted Miami Beach’s postwar boom, then tracked its subsequent urban decay. In the 1980s, the symbiotic interaction of design and photography was affirmed, once again, when Miami’s South Beach district was revived as a historic district, pictured and repackaged as a glorious collection of pastel Art Deco architectural confections that soon became a hot tourist destination. Over one century, photographs have recorded and stimulated Miami’s growth, and now stories of its history are being told through vintage views of its urban and architectural spaces.

The power of archival photographs to reveal the essential urban environment became clear to me in the early 1990s in my work documenting the urban environment of Miami Beach. I was fortunate to come upon a collection of the photographs of Samuel Gottscho, a commercial photographer known mostly for his extraordinary urban portraits of New York City between the World Wars, but who also worked extensively in 1930s Miami Beach. His work—documenting hotels, apartment buildings, homes, and commercial buildings for the architects who designed them—captured the city at a particular moment in its development, the great Depression-era building boom that effectively transformed Miami Beach from a seaside resort into a small city. His photographs catalogue the 1930s city in all its richness, a city characterized by urban vistas and rich gardens, simultaneously modern and traditional, with an environment balanced between monumentality and intimacy. Miami Beach, as seen through Gottscho’s lens, was a miniature and magical city, with all the allure of a world’s fair.

Gottscho’s carefully orchestrated views document newly built structures in the city, portraying them on a symbolic level to capture Miami’s metropolitan ambitions. In one iconic view, the towering form of the Grossinger Beach Hotel (today’s Ritz Plaza Hotel) rises boldly in stepped vertical planes from the beach, terminating in the type of lyrical modern lantern that became an architectural motif along the beach. In another view, Gottscho captured the same building and its lantern as part of the syncopated march of recently built, skyscraping hotels along the beachfront that created a new skyline and image for the city. A similar intent underlies his nocturnal portrait of the Albion Hotel, a sophisticated urban vision dramatized by the light streaks of cars zooming by.

Gottscho captured other aspects of Miami in close views: the tactile character and sociability of its more intimate spaces. The beach façade of the Atlantis Hotel portrays a porch with wicker chairs at the ready, suggesting a human presence not explicitly represented. Upon closer inspection, the view also reveals a palm-studded beach—the city’s claim to fame—reflected in the polished black Vitrolite walls that highlight the glamour of the building’s modern materials. In another view, early morning shadows rake the front terrace and façade of the Tides Hotel, highlighting its rich stonework and the monumental arches of the entrance portal that set off a small group of morning porch dwellers.

Gottscho’s photographs pre-date and challenge the now-standard notions of Miami Beach’s visual identity that have been formed by more recent and candy-colored photography. Traditionally, photography has always commodified Miami Beach, transforming its hotels into objects of desire. Yet fifty years before their repurposing as a pastel fantasy, the city’s Modern buildings were pictured as optimistic symbols of urban life. These photographs depict the city as a humanist artifact of the modern world and deliver a more accurate understanding of the intentions of their creators. Today they provide valuable information toward preservation efforts, elucidating not only the details of Miami’s historic physical appearance but the poignant drama of the city’s ambition, as well.

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Detail of the beach façade of the Atlantis Hotel. Photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho. From Architectural Record 80 (July 1936). © Doris Schleisner. Courtesy of the Bass Museum of Art.
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  • Detail of the beach façade of the Atlantis Hotel. Photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho. From Architectural Record 80 (July 1936). © Doris Schleisner. Courtesy of the Bass Museum of Art.
View looking south along Collins Avenue. c. 1941. Photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho. © Doris Schleisner. Courtesy of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.
  • View looking south along Collins Avenue. c. 1941. Photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho. © Doris Schleisner. Courtesy of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.
Albion Hotel, Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach, Florida, General view at night, Jan. 21, 1940, Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer, 1 negative, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., Gottscho-Schleisner Collection (DIGITAL ID: gsc 5a04485).
  • Albion Hotel, Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach, Florida, General view at night, Jan. 21, 1940, Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer, 1 negative, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., Gottscho-Schleisner Collection (DIGITAL ID: gsc 5a04485).
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Detail of façade, Tides Hotel, Ocean Drive. Photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho. © Doris Schleisner. Gift of Lawrence M. Dixon Jr. Courtesy of the Bass Museum of Art.
  • Detail of façade, Tides Hotel, Ocean Drive. Photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho. © Doris Schleisner. Gift of Lawrence M. Dixon Jr. Courtesy of the Bass Museum of Art.
Grossinger Hotel, Collins Ave., Miami Beach, Florida. General entrance exterior. Mar. 5, 1941, Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer, 1 negative, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., Gottscho-Schleisner Collection (Digital ID: gsc 5a06582).
  • Grossinger Hotel, Collins Ave., Miami Beach, Florida. General entrance exterior. Mar. 5, 1941, Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer, 1 negative, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., Gottscho-Schleisner Collection (Digital ID: gsc 5a06582).
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