Balthazar Korab, RIP

His photographs of modern architecture were nearly as important as the works themselves in spreading the modernist aesthetic.

By Kristin Belz February 3, 2013 Published in the February 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

There are a few architectural photographers whose names are nearly as well-known as those of the architects whose works they photograph. In this elite category is Balthazar Korab, who died January 15, 2013 at the age of 86. In his decades long career, he was especially important in helping popularize modernism, which was at first a radically new style unlike anything America had seen before.

Born in Hungary in 1926, Korab emigrated to France in 1949, when communism overtook his native country. He got a degree in architecture from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1954, worked in Paris for various architects (including Mr. Modernism himself, Le Corbusier), but fell in love with an American woman who was studying piano in Paris at the time. After they married in 1954, a visit to her family in Detroit, Michigan turned into a decision to settle there.

Detroit in the mid-20th century was home not only to the booming car culture, but also to the Cranbrook Academy of Art, sometimes called the "cradle of modernism." Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, Ralph Rapson, Harry Bertoia, Florence Knoll and others had studied there. By the mid-50s, Saarinen (whose architect and educator father Eliel designed the campus and its original buildings and was instrumental in the experimentation at the school) had a successful practice in Detroit, and Korab got a job in his office.  Saarinen is best known for his lyrically curving, expressionistic designs (like the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport in New York, the Dulles Airport in Virginia, and the St. Louis Gateway Arch), and Korab's photographs were a part of Saarinen's design development and presentation.

Once working for Saarinen, Korab quickly became valued more for his photography than for his design work. Within a few years he left to set up his own architectural photography studio, and went on to make history documenting the buildings of his former employer and others over the next decades. 

A slide show of Korab's work is a visit to some of the most iconic works of modernist architecture in America, as well as a taste of the visual aesthetic those works represented.  

Show Comments