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Using a Retro View-Master to See Modernist Architecture in 3D

A reel of Bruce Goff's 1947 Ford House in Aurora, Illinois, from View Productions (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless noted)
A reel showing Bruce Goff’s 1947 Ford House in Aurora, Illinois, from View Productions (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Not long ago, the spiraling 1950s Bavinger House designed by architect Bruce Goff was razed by its owner, leaving just a scraped patch of dirt. Through a device you may have last experienced as a childhood souvenir — the stereoscopic View-Master — you can revisit its organic architecture in 3D. Since 1997, the Knoxville, Tennessee–based View Productions has created a series of reels highlighting 20th-century design and architecture, particularly forms that are difficult to capture in two dimensions.

Each reel comes with a short essay on its buildings, and for the one that features three houses by Goff, architect Malcolm Holzman writes:

His structures present difficulties in understanding and appreciation of the general relations between particulars that result in a clear or complete idea if only viewed from drawings or two-dimensional photographs. Goff’s continuous spaces and free-flowing forms are precisely the opposite of those most easily depicted in ordinary architectural graphics.

View Productions
Two views of Shin’en Kan in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, designed by Bruce Goff. It was lost to arson in 1996. (image courtesy View Productions)

Of those three Goff houses — which were photographed with a stereo camera by Michael Kaplan, co-founder of View Productions and a professor of architecture at the University of Tennessee — only one still stands, the bird cage–like Ford House in Aurora, Illinois. The 1956 Shin’en Kan in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, was destroyed by arson in 1996. Holzman notes that many people haven’t been able to witness Goff’s work in person, as he mostly built in locations that are off the beaten architecture path (the Japanese Pavilion at LACMA being an exception). I grew up in Bartlesville and saw Shin’en Kan firsthand before it was burned. I was startled at how sharply the View Productions photographs brought back memories of its sunken living room and soaring angles adorned with iridescent blue glass cullet. And the clicking of the View-Master, which comes with its own nostalgia, certainly reinforces the feeling of looking into the past.

View Productions
View Productions reels of architecture
View Productions
Looking at Bruce Goff’s Ford House in Aurora, Illinois

Not all the View Production reels are architecture memorials, though; they also feature surviving work by Frank Gehry, Antonio GaudiCharles and Ray Eames, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Kaplan journeyed to lesser-known sites as well, like Hans Scharoun’s modernist buildings in Berlin, Ralph Erskine’s influential low-cost housing in Sweden, and Russel Wright’s eco-conscious Dragon Rock residence in Garrison, New York, built alongside an abandoned quarry. Much of this architecture is organic modernism, which favored fluid living spaces and blurred lines between the human-made and the natural landscape.

Kaplan, who started View Productions with architect Gregory Terry, told Hyperallergic that the company is currently “beginning to scan our many hundreds of stereoscopic film images for display on 4K 3D television. The first results are excellent.” So while View Productions remains an analogue experience right now, it may go digital in the future, allowing for expansion and greater accessibility. “This will give us the opportunity to make available all of our images, not just the few displayed on View-Master reels,” Kaplan added. “While not interactive, because these are all on film, they are at a higher resolution than anything one would see in VR using current technology.”

View Productions
A View Productions reel in the View-Master
View Productions
The View-Master set from View Productions

Architecture and design classics in 3D are available from View Productions.

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