Richard Neutra’s Architectural Vanishing Act

On December 15, 1929, Dr. Philip M. Lovell, the imperiously eccentric health columnist for the Los Angeles Times, invited readers to tour his ultramodern new home, at 4616 Dundee Drive, in the hills of Los Feliz. On a page crowded with ads promoting quack cures for “chronic constipation” and “sagging flabby chins,” Lovell announced three days of open houses, adding that “Mr. Richard T. Neutra, architect who designed and supervised the construction . . . will conduct the audience from room to room.” Neutra’s middle initial was actually J., but this recent Austrian immigrant, thirty-seven years old and underemployed, had little reason to complain: he was being launched as a pioneer of American modernist architecture. Thousands of people took the tour; striking photographs were published. Three years later, Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the codifiers of the International Style, hailed Neutra’s work as “stylistically the most advanced house built in America since the War.”

The Lovell Health House, as the behemoth on Dundee Drive came to be known, remains a dumbfounding sight. It occupies a steep slope at the edge of Griffith Park, plunging three stories from street level. The main structural elements are a skeleton of light steel, a thin skin of sprayed-on concrete, and ribbons of casement windows, which run across the south-facing side. It is a monumental yet unreal creation—a silver-white vessel that seems to have docked at the top of a canyon. Inside, you have the sense of hovering in space as you look down the thick-grown hillside toward a hazy horizon and a possible sea. Neutra wrote of the design in characteristically convoluted fashion: “Through continuity of fenestration, linkage with the landscape, we should draw again on what the vitally dynamic natural scene had been for a hundred thousand years, and make it once more a human habitat.”

Can an aggressively modern house become indivisible from its surroundings? Neutra contemplated that challenge throughout his career, which extended from novice efforts in Germany, in the early nineteen-twenties, until his death, in 1970. The Health House, majestically at odds with its environment, doesn’t quite hit the mark. But if you venture a few miles to the southeast, into Silver Lake, you can see Neutra in a stealthier, suppler mode. In the early twentieth century, the neighborhood was settled by avant-garde artists, radical activists, and bohemians. Neutra joined the throng in 1932, building himself a studio-residence, the Neutra VDL House, by the Silver Lake Reservoir. Between 1948 and 1962, he built nine more houses a block to the south, in an area now called the Neutra Colony. Huddled under lofty pines and eucalyptus trees, these dwellings embody the architect’s seductive later manner: low, wide façades; plate-glass windows under overhanging roofs; darker, woodsier trim. Reticent, almost inconspicuous, they gaze out at joggers and dog walkers with a guarded serenity. The architecture within calls as little attention to itself as possible, so that your eyes are drawn to the reservoir shimmering through the foliage.

“Thanks, I knew I could count on you to turn my problem into something way worse that happened to you.”Cartoon by Teresa Burns Parkhurst

Although Neutra enjoyed fame from the thirties onward—in 1949, he appeared on the cover of Time—clients of relatively modest means could still afford to hire him. (Several of the Neutra Colony houses were first owned by Japanese American families whose members had been in internment camps during the Second World War.) Those economics are long gone. Amid a prolonged vogue for mid-century modernism, Neutras go for extravagant prices. The Kaufmann House, a Palm Springs idyll that Neutra built for the department-store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann—who also commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater—is on the market for $16.95 million. Latter-day Neutra owners include hedge funders, shipping magnates, Saudi royals, and Hollywood superagents, although artists and academics remain in the mix. Those with more limited resources can settle for house numbers executed in Neutraface, a sans-serif font based on the architect’s favored lettering. Sometimes called the “gentrification font,” it adorns countless neo-mid-century developments.

Neutra’s association with luxury may be one reason that he has failed to secure a central place in the twentieth-century architectural canon, alongside the likes of Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Louis Kahn. Some critics would rank him below Rudolph Schindler, the other great Austrian modernist in Los Angeles, who helped bring Neutra to the city and later fell out with him. Neutra left behind no signature landmark on the order of the Guggenheim Museum or the Salk Institute. One project in which he invested particularly high hopes—a public-housing complex called Elysian Park Heights—stirred reactionary ire in the fifties, and was never built. Yet the fact that Neutra did his best work in domestic spaces should not detract from his significance. His mode of ground-hugging modernism—with clean, cool lines that play off against the year-round California green—helped to define the local architectural vernacular.

Above all, Neutra has inspired lasting devotion in the people who have made his homes their own. Earlier this year, I began driving around L.A. with a copy of Thomas S. Hines’s authoritative 1982 book, “Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture,” seeking out more than a hundred local structures. I spoke to several original owners, ranging in age from eighty-four to a hundred and two. The houses may not be as dreamily immaculate as they are in the famous images by the architectural photographer Julius Shulman, but their stories say something deeper about Neutra’s achievement, which has less to do with stylish surfaces than with underlying rhythms—the search for a shelter that is also open to the world.

“Well, I don’t know about favorite,” Susie Akai Fukuhara said with a smile, when I asked about her favorite memories of Neutra. She has lived in the Neutra Colony since 1962, when the architect built a roomy home for her and her first husband, John Akai. The interior designer David Netto, who lives in the Neutra next door, introduced me to her. “He was, as you say, a big personality,” Fukuhara went on. “He used to show up with his entourage, without calling me, and take them through the house.” Many other clients recall Neutra arriving unannounced. Susan Sorrells, who lives in her parents’ Neutra residence, in the desert town of Shoshone, California, told me, “It was understood that he had a right to stay here anytime.”

Neutra is one of those artists, like Gertrude Stein and Mark Rothko, who present a fundamental contradiction between their personality and their work. The houses are tranquil and graceful; the man who made them could be pompous, overbearing, needy, exasperating. “He was, in a word, impossible,” Ann Brown, the original owner of a 1968 Neutra in Washington, D.C., told me. Brown, who chaired the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission during the Clinton Administration, recalled travelling to Los Angeles with her husband, the late Donald A. Brown, to confer with Neutra. One morning, they were kept waiting because—as Dione Neutra, the architect’s wife, told them—“in the night Mr. Neutra had a revelation.” Brown hastened to add that she was in awe of Neutra’s brilliance. “I never feel alone here,” she said. “I find something new to see every day.”

At the Perkins House (1955), a “spider leg,” or extended roof beam, gives the illusion of the structure dissolving into space.Photograph by Julius Shulman © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

There was something almost comical about Neutra’s conceitedness. In later years, he travelled with a copy of his Time cover, presenting it to flight attendants and maître d’s. The late art historian Constance Perkins, for whom Neutra built a gemlike house in Pasadena, remembered meetings at which he had himself theatrically summoned away for an “important phone call.” Still, this titan of self-absorption somehow absorbed everything around him. Claire Leddy, who grew up in her parents’ Neutra in Bakersfield, remembers him asking her to play her flute for him: “This man, so imposing with his shock of white hair and his black huge eyebrows, watching my every movement—I had never been paid that kind of attention by an adult of that stature. He was interested in everything.”

As taxing as Neutra could be, most clients felt grateful to him. Perkins, who lived in her house from 1955 until her death, in 1991, wrote, “It is impossible to say how much I love my home.” According to the present owner, the historian Sharon Salinger, Perkins slept on a daybed off the living room so that she could wake up to a primal Neutra effect: floor-to-ceiling glass walls meeting at a transparent corner, giving the illusion of the house dissolving into space. A similar mirage appears in Susie Fukuhara’s bedroom. “It feels like I’m in the middle of paradise here,” Fukuhara told me.

Novelists from Nathanael West to Alison Lurie have mocked Los Angeles’s mishmash of residential architectural styles, from Cape Cod bungalows to Queen Anne Victorians to ersatz Italian villas. Neutra, too, disapproved of the city’s “array of pickings and tidbits from all historical and geographical latitudes and longitudes.” Such accusations could be levelled at any American city: a Tudor cottage is as fake in Boston as it is in Brentwood. Critics have long sensed, though, a deeper dishonesty in L.A.’s manic nostalgia—a plastering over of ugly histories. The red tile roofs and white stucco walls of the Spanish Colonial style, which peaked in the nineteen-twenties, bring to mind two cycles of violence: the displacement of Native populations by Spanish-speaking invaders, and the subsequent displacement of Mexicans by Anglo invaders. Modernism promised, falsely or not, a sober new beginning.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Southern California evolved a discrete architectural identity. In Pasadena, Charles and Henry Greene constructed big-roofed bungalows that struck up a convivial conversation with the landscape. In La Jolla, Irving Gill reduced the Spanish style to near-abstraction: stark façades, unadorned windows. In 1916, Gill wrote, “We should build our house simple, plain and substantial as a boulder, then leave the ornamentation of it to Nature.” Gill seems to have arrived independently at the kind of modernist philosophy that was being propagated in the same period by the Austrian architect Adolf Loos, with his proclamation that “freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength.” But Gill’s houses proved less confrontational than Loos’s, which scandalized Vienna: instead, they receded into the California greenwood.

Often, the motivation for architectural reform was rooted in the Southern Californian mania for healthy, open-air living. As Lyra Kilston notes, in her 2019 book, “Sun Seekers: The Cure of California,” the Southland was considered a refuge for people with tuberculosis, and common features of sanatoriums—white walls, decluttered interiors, picture windows, sleeping porches—coincided with modernist values. A purified aesthetic also appealed to California’s alternative cultures: leftist cells, utopian communes, dietetic retreats, nudist colonies. Philip Lovell, the health guru, catered to that element in his Times column, “The Care of the Body,” where he promoted vegetarianism, nude sunbathing, and sleeping in the open air. The Health House could be mistaken for a Swiss spa that has wandered into the Los Feliz hills.

The Sorrells House (1957), in Shoshone, California. Neutra saw himself as a therapist who eased clients’ stress.Photograph by David Benjamin Sherry for The New Yorker

California modernism found crucial champions in independent women, who, as the scholar Alice T. Friedman has shown, seized on the new architecture as an opportunity to reshape the domestic sphere. Gill’s chief patron in La Jolla was the left-leaning newspaperwoman Ellen Browning Scripps. In Los Angeles, the dominant figure was the radical-minded oil heiress Aline Barnsdall, who, in 1919, developed a plan for a progressive arts complex, with residences, on Olive Hill, in East Hollywood. She hired as her architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who never fully engaged with her vision and instead lavished attention on the main villa, Hollyhock House, an early example of his colossal Mayan Revival style. Barnsdall later wrote that she felt “weary and under vitalized” in the space. More congenial to her sensibilities were the ideas of a pair of Austrians who came west in Wright’s wake: Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra.

There is no way to tell Neutra’s story without telling Schindler’s, and vice versa. Their broken friendship makes for one of the great parlor games of American architectural history, with connoisseurs apt to argue the case deep into the night. In the Schindler camp, the tale is often cast in the mold of “All About Eve,” with Schindler being wronged by the ruthless up-and-comer Neutra.

Both men came from middle-class Viennese families; Schindler was born in 1887, Neutra in 1892. Schindler’s background was both Catholic and Jewish; Neutra’s was entirely Jewish. Both were steeped in the opulent milieu of fin-de-siècle Vienna; one of Neutra’s closest school friends was Sigmund Freud’s son Ernst. Schindler and Neutra met in their student days, when both were under the sway of the local modernist idols, Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos. Schindler was the first to find his own path. Around 1913, he wrote a manifesto championing what became known as “space architecture,” which aims to create an almost metaphysical experience of “light, air, and temperature.” Wright had anticipated this thinking, but Schindler went further in declaring his desire to break open interiors. He later wrote, “Our rooms will descend close to the ground and the garden will become an integral part of the house. The distinction between indoors and the out-of-doors will disappear.”

Related Articles

Stay Connected

- Advertisement -

Latest Articles