Featured Architect: Richard Neutra


Richard Neutra (1892-1970) is a bona fide student of the Bauhaus architectural movement of the early 20th Century, and (with the influence and inspiration of Frank Lloyd Wright) he became one of the leading proponents of its principals in the United States. Bauhaus design theories - and Neutra's distillation of those theories, and his expansion upon them - formed the foundations of what known today more generally as Modernism.

With the design and completion of the Grace Lewis Miller House in Palm Springs in 1937 - one of the very first structures of contemporary design built in the area - "Desert Modernism" was born.

Born in Vienna, Austria, Neutra graduated in 1917 from the Technische Hochschule, Vienna, where he had been taught by Adolf Loos, and was influenced by Otto Wagner. In 1923 he emigrated to the U.S., where he worked on several projects with Rudolf N. Schindler before establishing his own practice.

Neutra created a modern regionalism for Southern California which combined a light metal frame with a stucco finish to create a light effortless appearance. He specialized in extending architectural space into a carefully arranged landscape. The dramatic images of flat-surfaced, industrialized residential buildings contrasted against the randomness of nature were heavily popularized by the photography of Julius Shulman.

At the funeral of Louis Sullivan, Neutra met Frank Lloyd Wright, who hired him in 1924 to work at Taliesin in Wisconsin while Wright was in Japan. Work ran out in 1925, and Neutra left Taliesin to work in California with Rudolf Schindler.

Among many projects, Schindler and Neutra collaborated on an entry for the League of Nations Competition of 1927; in the same year they formed a design firm with planner Carol Aronovici called the Architectural Group for Industry and Commerce (AGIC). Neutra and Schindler and their wives were very close; they shared space in Schindler's house on Kings Road in Los Angeles from February 1925 until the Neutras left to tour Europe in May 1930.

The breakup of Neutra and Schindler is often accorded to Neutra "stealing" client Phillip Lovell for the Lovell Health House in Los Angeles. According to Neutra's son Raymond, it was not that simple. Schindler was busy with projects like the Buck House on Catalina Island and the unbuilt Transparent House for Aline Barnsdall. Phillip Lovell was grumpy about an earlier 1924 Schindler cabin that collapsed in the snow during its first winter. Schindler was also having an affair with Harriet Freeman, Lovell's sister-in-law (who Lovell intensely disliked) and Lovell didn't want the architect of his new Health house under her influence. Schindler was just as happy not to put up with Lovell, and the project shifted to Neutra.

The Neutra/Schindler partnership did not unravel over that house, however. The hostility began in late 1930 when Schindler heard from friends that Neutra was not crediting him about the League of Nations project. It got worse when Schindler was rejected from the Philip Johnson's MOMA International Style exhibition in New York, which Neutra brought to LA for the 1932 Olympics.

In 1937, Neutra completed the Grace Lewis Miller House, aka the Mensendieck House, 2311 North Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs CA. This was the first Modernist house in Palm Springs, according to the Palm Springs Modern Committee. After Miller left Palm Springs in 1943, she rented to military friends stationed in town. When she returned, the house had fallen into such disrepair she closed up the house and left town. It was listed for sale in 1947 but did not sell until 1950, when she sold it to actor Charlie Farrell, co-founder of the Palm Springs Racquet Club. Farrell rented it to various tenants, and in 1959 converted the garage into a second rental apartment. Farrell later sold it to a family who did awful alterations in order to break up the space into smaller spaces. In 1999, Hal Meltzer bought the house, initially to restore, but who flipped a year later. The house was sold in 2000 to Catherine Meyler, whose first problem was keeping out the crack addicts who had taken up temporary residence.

Meyler's restoration efforts included replacing the roof; re-piping and re-plumbing; replacing the electrical system; reframing the living room and garage; installing new insulation in all walls and ceilings; replacing window glass; refinishing the concrete floor; and adding a six-foot wall around the property. She also had a new HVAC system designed to fit seamlessly into the existing structure and commissioned craftsmen to recreate the original built-in furniture in the living room/studio and master bedroom.

Meyler also put in a guest house addition, designed by Neutra in 1938 but never built. Meyler had the original plans and it was constructed with little modification. As she reports, the guest house "stands in the exact spot it was designed for and is enjoyed enormously by friends who previously only had day beds as an option for overnight stays."

In 1946, department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann hired Neutra to design a desert home for his family in Palm Springs. A decade earlier, Frank Lloyd Wright had built Fallingwater for Mr. Kaufmann. But Kaufmann, having seen Taliesin West, thought that Wright didn’t understand desert design, and chose Neutra for his Palm Springs house instead. The Kaufmann Desert House, located at 470 West Vista Chino Road, ultimately turned out so well that when Wright saw it, he admitted that it was beautiful (an uncharacteristic compliment, coming from Wright, regarding the work of another architect).

When Edgar Kaufmann died in 1955, the house was vacant for a number of years then sold to Francis C. Park, who sold it in 1962 to art dealer Joseph Linsk, and his wife Nelda. Nelda Linsk hired architect William F. Cody to add about 2200 sqaure feet of interior space by converting a patio into a media room; a wall was removed so the newly enclosed space could open into the original living room; additional air conditioning was placed on the roof. Furnishings selected by Neutra were replaced by interior designer and Lautner house owner Arthur Elrod.

The Kaufmann Desert House was again sold in 1968 to Eugene and Francis Klein, and then sold again in 1973 to singer-songwriter Barry Manilow, who did a number of unfortunate renovations. It was sold to Brent and Beth Edwards Harris in 1993. The firm of Marmol Radziner did a well-publicized and immaculate 1995 restoration. Chris Shanley was the project architect for the 1995 renovation.

Neutra and Schindler ended their partnership and co-residency and rarely interacted after that. However, when Neutra had a heart attack in 1953, he found himself in the same hospital room as Schindler. They made peace before Schindler died there of cancer. The hostility was on Schindler's side and Neutra was happy to have the reconcilliation.

During the 1950s Neutra concentrated his efforts on public buildings, collaborating with Robert A. Alexander on churches, schools and shops. Some of the most famous are the Kester Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles (1953), the Miramar Chapel in La Jolla (1957), and the building for the Ferro Chemical Company in Cleveland, Ohio (1957), characterized with the typical Neutra elements: a cantilevered roof and thin steel supports.

Neutra became also famous for the attention to his clients needs, even for small projects, and his sense of humour giving a ‘human face to architecture’ as he also wrote in his book Survival Through Design (1954).

Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand based part of her character Howard Roark on Neutra in The Fountainhead. She was the second owner of Neutra's Von Sternberg House.

Between 1927 and 1969, Neutra designed more than 300 houses in California and elsewhere. In August 1949, Time Magazine featured Neutra on its cover and ranked him second only to Frank Lloyd Wright in American architecture. After that, Neutra had all the work he could ever want.

Neutra coined the term biorealism, which means "the inherent and inseparable relationship between man and nature." Neutra hired several young architects who went on to independent success, including Gregory Ain, Harwell Hamilton Harris, and Raphael Soriano.

Architect Robert Evans Alexander joined Neutra and the firm became Neutra and Alexander from 1949-1959. An agreement was made that Neutra would still design residential commissions within his own independent firm, while larger commercial and institutional commissions would be handled as Neutra and Alexander. Alexander was actively involved in many multi-housing projects but only two single-family houses during that period: the Hall House and the Governor's House on Guam. Neutra and Alexander broke up in 1959 when the two architects disagreed over large-scale jobs.

Neutra visited the NCSU School of Design as a guest lecturer for the first time in 1950. On December 13, 1957, Neutra lectured again at the NCSU School of Design. He led the class in writing a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright: "Certainly today all serious architectural students are aware of your tremendous contribution to both the fiber and spirit of the art, and almost all are in sympathy with the means you have used in giving your ideas form, even though our own incipient philosophies and forms may be directed in many different ways. With these thoughts in mind, we would like to join with Mr. Neutra in sending you heartfelt greetings at this Christmas season. With respectful wishes -- [Signed by fourteen students.]" In 1965, Neutra formally partnered with architect and son Dion Neutra as Richard and Dion Neutra and Associates. In 1966, Neutra moved back to Vienna, Austria. He died in Germany in 1970 while in the middle of an argument with a client, according to grandson Justin, who later made a short film about Neutra. In 1977, Neutra was posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Medal. The typeface family Neutraface, designed by Christian Schwartz for House Industries, was based on Neutra's architecture and design principles.

Long after his Neutra's passing, the influence of his design principals - and the cherished structures themselves - not only speak for themselves, but inspire passion akin to the loss of an endangered species.

In the spring of 2002, the city of Rancho Mirage - quite casually, and apparently quite cluelessly - allowed a swift atrocity to be committed on the grounds of Tamarisk Country Club, one of the area's pools of midcentury modern residential design for the top of the market, from its original heyday. The architecture and design world were horrified; the city of Rancho Mirage was very publicly - even internationally - embarrassed.

On April 21, a feature piece - a tribute, post-mortem, and obituary - entitled "A Destruction Site" and written by L.A. Interior Designer Brad Dunning - ran in the New York Times:

In a move that has stunned, outraged and saddened admirers of modern architecture, the city of Rancho Mirage, Calif., recently approved the demolition of an important 13-room house designed by Richard Neutra in 1963. Neutra, who died in 1970, helped introduce the International style to America, redefining architecture in the 20th century with a series of remarkable residential pavilions. His houses are now cherished in the same way as Frank Lloyd Wright's -- as testaments to a uniquely original vision and a particularly pivotal moment in design history.

The residence of Samuel and Luella Maslon was situated between two fairways on the Tamarisk Country Club golf course. Tamarisk was founded after Jack Benny was refused membership at the nearby Thunderbird because he was a Jew. Frank Sinatra, Ben Hogan and the Marx Brothers all had a helping hand in creating the new club, which quickly became a legend as the Rat Pack's hedonist playground. Seldom was a home afforded such a perfect site. The Maslons' house was surrounded on all sides by the unworldly green expanse of round-the-clock irrigated turf, isolated like an architectural model and spared the indignity of rubbing elbows with lesser creations. Mrs. Maslon was so enamored of the house (one of only three Neutras in the modernist mecca in and around Palm Springs) and her famous art collection that she stubbornly refused to leave even in the face of failing health. She died last year at home, and the property, still in excellent condition, was put on the market by her heirs and sold through Sotheby's, which is having a sale in May of the couple's art.

The new owner, listed as Richard Rotenberg, of Hopkins, Minn., alarmed local preservationists when word leaked out that he was considering raising some ceilings and enlarging the rooms. On Tuesday, March 19, a contractor walked into Rancho Mirage City Hall and applied for a demolition permit. It was issued that same day with no review and no questions, stamped and approved. Service with a smile. The house was gone within a week.

Courtney Newman, a neighbor, surveyed the damage the morning after: ''They appeared to be in such a hurry. The drapes and mattresses -- complete with bedding -- weren't even removed. They're just part of the wreckage. It's an outrage.''

Now that important modern architecture has finally achieved iconic stature, this is especially painful. Perhaps 20 years ago this wanton act might have been less shocking; the style had yet to achieve its lofty status. But at this point, when contemporary architecture has moved so far from the idealism and social engineering intended -- and realized -- by these surviving gems, the thought that a house of this caliber would be in jeopardy escaped even the most paranoid preservationists. And this house was no slouch. This was Neutra with deep pockets on a breathtaking site with luxurious appointments. Its soaring, exaggerated (even for Neutra) flat-roof overhangs protected the artwork within from the harsh desert sun. Ingenious built-ins camouflaged resort necessities, like barbecues, charcoal bins and steam trays. Posh living on the links.

''Devastated, absolutely devastated, and embarrassed to have been any part of it,'' says the understandably upset listing agent for the property, Deirdre Coit, who coordinated the $2.45 million sale.

''The house was in beautiful condition, important and significant, so appropriate to the site -- what a shame, what a shame,'' laments the architect Ron Radziner, who with his partner Leo Marmol oversaw the award-winning restoration of Neutra's 1946 Kaufmann house in nearby Palm Springs.

Peter Moruzzi, chairman of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, a preservation group, is constantly urging the city to appreciate and understand their own impressive inventory. He said the Maslon house was ''without a doubt the most significant piece of architecture in Rancho Mirage, and now it is gone.''

Why Rotenberg had the house demolished remains unknown. He could not be reached for comment. One day, his answering machine informed me that it could not take messages because it was full. (No doubt with people screaming at him!) A message left the next day was not returned. Patrick Pratt, city manager for Rancho Mirage, argued that if the house was so important, why wasn't it on the National Register? (And if Alfred Hitchcock was such a good director, how come he never won an Oscar?) He said he had no idea who the architect was or what the house represented.

The Buddhas are gone in Afghanistan, Palm Springs has approved demolition of a corrugated-metal, glass and concrete-block shopping center designed by Albert Frey, and there's one less obstacle on Tamarisk's 17th hole. Or to paraphrase the songwriter, ''A dreamboat became a footnote.''

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