We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short, personal reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. These recordings feature stories related to our daily lives.
This week, Museum editor Lyra Kilston muses on Richard Neutra’s innovative and newly relevant school designs, as seen through photographs by Julius Shulman. To learn more about these images, visit: https://primo.getty.edu/permalink/f/mlc5om/GETTY_ROSETTAIE131574.
JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short, personal reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. This week Lyra Kilston discusses Julius Shulman’s photograph of a Richard Neutra school building.
LYRA KILSTON: My name is Lyra Kilston and I’m a senior editor at the Getty Museum.
I’ve just finished shepherding my daughter through another day of online elementary school. She’s antsy now, after hours of sitting in the same chair, with a few breaks in another chair at the kitchen table. The technical difficulties weren’t too bad today, fortunately. Her teacher is patient and trying his best to teach during a pandemic, but it’s still bizarre that she only knows him as a head and shoulders on her computer screen.
When the schools shut down in mid-March last year, we thought it would just be for a few weeks. As the months numbly passed, I paid close attention to news about how schools might reopen safely in our new reality.
I already knew a bit of history about schools during a health crisis. I had written a book that focused, in part, on how ideas about contagion, hygiene, and good health had changed architecture in Europe and the United States around the turn of the 20th century. Buildings from hospitals to housing and schools were designed to be more hygienic and to let in more fresh air and sunlight. These natural elements were believed to both strengthen the body and fight off rampant illnesses like tuberculosis and cholera. This led to what were called “open-air” classrooms that brought the outdoors inside, through lots of glass and open windows, or that let students bring their desks outside to terraces or gardens.
With the safety of school constantly on my mind, I was drawn to photographs of the Corona Avenue Elementary school, designed by modernist architect Richard Neutra. Built in the Los Angeles area in 1935, Neutra’s new wing of classrooms were called “glass-and-garden rooms,” as they each featured a glass wall that slid open onto broad patios and gardens. Students could easily push their own lightweight chairs and desks right outside for lessons on the lawn. The photographs show bucolic scenes—children sitting cross-legged on the green grass, painting at easels, or watching their teacher point to the display board she wheeled outside.
Looking into it further, I learned that while Neutra was well-versed in the latest modern European school design, he was also building on a California legacy. The state’s mild climate had made it a natural center for outdoor school experiments—from Oakland to San Diego—since the turn of the century. These quaint-seeming practices sadly gained new relevance in 2020, and I hoped for an announcement from our school district that they would try something similar. We had the ideal climate and if school yards were too small, there were now acres of empty parks and parking lots.
I’m still fascinated by the open-air school movement, but it was a bittersweet topic to research. I watched schools in the more difficult climates of Massachusetts, New York, and Arkansas forge ahead with outdoor classes while our schools remained locked for months, beneath clear blue skies.
I know the photographs of the Corona school were staged. The photographer, Julius Shulman, probably arranged the students and teacher just so to make it look extra perfect. But 85 years later, classrooms like that are needed again, and so are the forward-thinking architects and school superintendents who made it happen.
CUNO: To view Julius Schulman’s 1953 photograph of Richard Neutra’s Corona Avenue School in Bell, California, click the link in this episode’s description or look for it on primo.getty.edu.