|Neutra: Modernism 12/98|
The Neutra Genius: Innovations & Vision
The first version of the VDL house, our family home on the shores of Silverlake in Los Angeles, was completed in 1932. The design of a thin suspended concrete slab on pre-cast joists at grade was again based on the availability of a system not commonly employed before or since. Its use was to afford the reason much of the buildings drawing archive survived a tragic fire in 1963. Had a wood floor system been utilized, it may not have escaped the blaze to shelter the priceless files in the basement crawl area. Porcelain enameled steel panels and polished plate-glass spandrel materials (resources usually reserved for industrial or commercial applications) were used for walls. Masonite paneling, although inexpensive, was unique, and by the use of colored wax took on an exotic "look" which made the areas appear rich and intriguing. Here again, standard steel sash determined the module. In this house, my father was able to demonstrate both the openness of design and the effective use of the site; elements that characterized his work. Through controlled vistas onto neighbors, the distant lake and hills gave a sense of spaciousness to the otherwise minuscule site.
Dads best time for creative thinking was early in the morning, long before any activity had started in the office below. He often stayed in bed working with ideas and designs, even extending into appointments which had been made earlier. His one concession to convention was to put on a tie over his night shirt when receiving visitors while still propped up in bed!
In the 1940s, as I was being integrated into the firm, Dad continued his standardization of details and specification writing through systems which anticipated computerized programs of the 1980s and later. Some of my earliest activities had to do with this effort. The process resulted in something we identified as LOFASI, meaning 'List of Fixtures and Special Installations.' This made it possible to use a series of standardized specification sheets for the basic work of a trade section supplemented by special notes pertaining to the particular project. This concept still has elements that are commendable, and yet it has failed to be absorbed by the profession at large.
We also worked on a series of standard pre-printed "Letters to Contractors." A standard letter was designed to be sent at a particular stage of construction to warn the contractor of things to watch for, which, from practice, we'd found were often missed. These standard letters were fashioned to be edited by relatively inexperienced juniors who would not have been able to create them from scratch.
One example of an item that was often missed by contractors had to do with our desire to create a clear visual separation of the plane formed by a wall which extended above the roof plane, and the extending roof fascia adjoining it. This was a common design element which showed up in many projects. Conceptually the first roof joist adjacent to this wall would extend out from the wall line to create the overhang. We soon noticed that when finish was applied to the rough fascia and the wall surface, the former would cut into the vertical line of the wall in an ugly manner. The solution was to insert a 2x piece of wood in the plane of the roof which would stop one inch short of the studline in the wall below the overhang. Contractors would invariably miss this additional 2x and the correction was relatively painful.
Often in the practice, we developed opportunities for invention and creativity beyond the call of the client's program. In time, we also became increasingly focused on the basic assignment: "Place Man in relationship with Nature; that's where he developed and where he feels most at home!" How to accomplish this was our challenge and we aspired to reach this goal using technology whenever possible. What follows are several projects which show this side of our practice.
At the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, CA (1946), my father was most intrigued by the assignment because of the remote site, which, at the time he first saw it, was really "out there." The only neighbor was Raymond Loewy, whose house was in design at that same time by Swiss architect Albert Frey.
Dad initially compared the challenge of designing this house with that of designing the first reception station on the moon for the Earth-Moon rocket service. Would he be asked to emulate a historic style in order to create a "homey" feeling? He pointed out that man inhabiting this site was anything but a "natural" event, and certainly without precedent. To create something that "blended in" or "disappeared" was mannerist. Dad felt a more honest approach would be to frankly express the need for high tech in this hostile environment in every aspect of the design.
His one concession was the choice of natural stone for large wall areas. Otherwise, the design would frankly be an expression of the program of the owners, who wanted a winter retreat as a contrast to their lifestyle at Bear Run in snowy Pennsylvania.
Palm Springs has a tendency to reach temperatures of 100 degrees or so, even in the winter months. To make it possible to enjoy the swimming pool at all times, we designed a radiant heating system through which water could be run chilled as well as heated, depending on the temperature of the deck area. To my knowledge, this had never been done before, but it is a natural extension of the idea of radiant floor heating which has been around forever.
At times, wind-blown sand in the desert makes it impossible to enjoy outside areas. My father detailed custom vertical movable aluminum louvers which could be closed manually and locked in position to provide shelter. These became prototypes for a product that later became the basis of a substantial industry. Our development of these elements into motorized/computerized 15-story high airfoils at the Los Angeles County Hall of Records and the Santa Ana Courthouse buildings of the 1960s represent the culmination of this idea's development.
A major design determinant for the Gettysburg Cyclorama Center, PA (1961), was the housing of a grandiose cyclorama painting of the battle. It was some 30 feet high and over 100 feet in diameter, and had to be accessed from within and from below to avoid having to cut a door into the painting itself. Placement of this element was to become a major challenge.
We realized early on that we had a major political problem to deal with as well, which was not even mentioned in the building program: how to present this huge cyclorama in a museum setting without it appearing "in your face" (especially to our Southern tax-payers)? Our solution was to place the painting "upstairs" out of sightand out of mindunless one was determined to view it. We studied a number of solutions for getting large numbers of visitors up and down to view the spectacle. A continuous stream of visitors could best be accommodated by a two-way ramp, so that people could be moving up and into position for a presentation while others were moving down.
To commemorate the reconciliation of the countrywhich we decided was the major message that should come across when visiting this siteDad came up with a genial notion. We designed a "Rostrum of the Nation," similar to a pulpit, in front of a curved wall on which were inscribed the words "Shall not perish from the earth..." We envisioned that this feature of the design would come into play at least yearly on the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, at which time a world-famed orator would be invited to address a throng of 25,000 in the auditorium spaces and outside on the lawn. His only limitation would be that his speech would be limited to no more than two minutes, the length of Lincolns original address!
At the time of this writing, the fate of this project hangs in the balance. Despite the fact that this is the only example of our firm's work commissioned by the U.S. Government east of the Mississippi, its owner, the National Park Service, wishes to demolish it. For details, see a separate article on The Gettysburg Visitor Center and a Preservation Alert, both available on the Neutra Web site at www.neutra.org.
Our practice had been to design with flat water-filled roofs a method often used in warehouse buildings in the East. It occurred to me to ask our engineers how much it would add to the cost of the project to design for, say, 12 inches of water on these roofs instead of the 6 inches that would correspond to the design live load. The amount they quoted was a fraction of the estimated cost of the disposal field. Now the question was to devise a "metering" system that would allow up to 12 inches to accumulate, which would handle the worst-peak hurricane on record over a 12-hour period.
The idea was to release the water in spurts separated by enough hours to allow the water to be absorbed at the rates estimated by the soil experts. We ended up building only six of these drywells instead of twenty-five. A motorized valve was inserted in the downspout line which was programmed to operate for so many minutes every six hours or so. A sensor would turn this circuit on when a float indicated the presence of water on the roof. A heating coil kept it from freezing in winter and facilitated drainage during snow and ice conditions.
Among the many innovations in this project was the introduction of water into the design itself, as opposed to one's only viewing it from a distance, which had been the case with the VDL House of 1932 that sat beside Silverlake. A great deal more reflectivity was incorporated into the design in the form of mirrors, water, and various degrees of reflective glass. The garden side of the structure was extensively redesigned, incorporating lessons learned from a generation of living with the structure. The rear entrance was converted to a bridge and spiral stair, while glass areas were drastically increased. A balcony was added off the master bedroom. Devices were added designed to divert the visitor's attention from unattractive nearby rooftops and undesirable views. As before, visitors are continually amazed at the economy of the footprint of the building in the face of the spaciousness that they feel.
Initially, we were given a very prosaic program prepared by an outside consultant. Had we followed it, the result would have been a very mundane three-level building with 12-foot ceilings and books distributed throughout, mixed up with reading carrels, tables and chairs. We chose instead to create a basic two-level building with a central core of four levels of books with 7'6" ceilings connected to the other levels by stairs. By leaving openings in the floors, we created a multi-storied atrium effect. Use of copious skylights created a dynamic atmosphere of changing light for the interior of most of the spaces. Planting surrounds the central book stack, with numerous plant areas dispersed around the floors.
Early on, we realized the lake would have hardly been seen from inside because the building was too far above the water. Later, it turned out, we discovered that the 'lake' actually dried up completely during the summer!
To create a water ambiance, we designed a large reflecting pond which surrounded two sides of the building, with a major waterfall in one area. By minimizing the edge, we got the Center to blend visually with the lake in the background. The water features were also carried into the interior under a ramp and stair. In several areas there are 8-foot diameter tank ends acting as interior fountains with jets.
The interior plants and water were situated to create an atmosphere that would at once be healthy for plants, books and the human beings that would inhabit the space! It turns out that an atmosphere of 50-percent relative humidity is perfect for books and plants, which do not do well when it's too dry. Neither do humans, for that matter, so this was a happy marriage.
We also found out that books would prefer a temperature of 60 degrees or so, down from the 70+ of the usual human habitat. By favoring a lower temperature in the stack areas, I was able to encourage the browsers to move out to the reading areas with their selections rather than block the narrow aisles in the stack areas. The sound of the interior water features is such that it is possible to converse in a normal tone of voice in the reading-room areas instead of having to be reminded to whisper, which is so often the [very unnatural] situation in a library.
The use of varying types of glass on the several elevations was another device we employed rather effectively with this project. On the west, where the building was seen from the highway, we used gold reflective double glazing which was spectacular in appearance. Because of the siting, the inference was that this treatment continued around the other facades, when in fact we changed to other less expensive treatments there. In this way, we achieved a sense of richness without exceeding the budget.
A major challenge came at a point in the midst of the construction document phase of this project. For political reasons the client announced that the budget was being cut arbitrarily by 20 percent! We were invited to redesign or resign. We managed to squeeze out the money by substituting inexpensive aluminum siding for the pre-cast concrete that we had planned for exterior cladding. While this preserved the major form of the design, the maintenance costs for the future were affected. This kind of issue illustrates an area I'm deeply interested in, namely that architecture should be judged "in context;" that is, with full knowledge of the forces that operated to create it.
The Neutra interest in innovation early onwith prototypical solutions to problems and challengesled to standardized building projects such as the sliding patio door, operable louvers, recessed lighting fixtures, furniture, and more. I like to think, however, that the real contribution of our practice will be evaluated more on how we dealt with the notion of realizing the importance of placing Man into relationship with his natural environment: the nature from which he evolved.
|Night view of entry, Gettysburg Cyclorama Center|
Likewise, several other buildings lost in the Northridge quake of 1994 were damaged and razed. The only Neutra at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), was partially demolished in 1992, the same year the university was honoring Dads 100th anniversary. The last Neutra
|Von Sternberg House, razed for a housing tract in 1972|
What is the state of the examples discussed in the article above?
The Kaufmann house has recently been refurbished from top to bottom, so at least it resembles the original. Until a few years ago, it was in dire straits and looked pathetic.
The Moore house has not been extensively refurbished for years. It suffers from both a lack of maintenance and the several additions made by others in subsequent years. With the exception of the pool, the site looks sad and down at the mouth.
The Gettysburg Center is on the list for demolition by the National Park Service. A letter-writing campaign is under way to see if that can be changed. For details, see a separate article on The Gettysburg Visitor Center and a Preservation Alert, both available on the Neutra Web site at www.neutra.org.
The Swirbul Library has not been refurbished since its construction more than thirty years ago. Monies to accomplish this were dissipated several years ago when the president of the institution absorbed more than his fair share of funding. The fate of the library hangs in the balance.
The Research House, owned by California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, is in need of funding for much needed refurbishment and maintenance. A source of funding is problematical in a period of diminishing budgets for higher education.
Despite our having master-planned the design, the Huntington Beach Library had a major addition made to it some years ago that was somewhat out of character with the original. Although I made application to do the work, I was not given special consideration and a local firm got the nod.
The Web site at www.neutra.org illustrates and discusses more of these issues and contains interesting links. We'd welcome your visitation. My hope is that I can somehow stem the tide of disappearance of the work of this 20th Century master!
Dion Neutra, the second son of Richard Neutra, passed the state board exam in one sitting and became the youngest corporate member of the AIA in 1950. His association with his father started when his dad asked if he'd like to learn to draft at age 11. He was project architect on many of the works of the firm during the decades of the 1940s and on. He assumed the presidency of the corporation in 1970 upon the death of his father, and has continued the practice up to the present time.
His current interests include preservation of the environment and Neutra projects in particular. He serves as Executive Consultant to the Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design, a non-profit organization formed by his dad in the 1960s. As such, he organizes projects and lectures, consults, and travels in support of the Institute's Aims and Purposes. Education of the public in the understanding of the Neutra practice is one project of the Institute. See Dion's biography and consulting philosophy for more details.
He can be reached at 2440 Neutra Place, Los Angeles, CA 90039-3141; phone/fax (323) 666-1806; e-mail email@example.com.
For more information about Modernism: the 20th Century Design Magazine, see the RagoArts site at www.ragoarts.com.
|Neutra: Modernism 12/98|