The View from Inside: An Overview of the Neutra Practice

Speech by Dion Neutra before the University of Minnesota on the occasion of the FIRST opening of the Traveling Exhibition at Macalester College

Thanks for that gracious introduction. Thank you for having me. It is wonderful to be here. I’d like to dedicate this discussion to the memory of my dear wife, Jackie, who died just two weeks ago of lung cancer. She would have loved to be with us.

Jackie was a renaissance woman; writer of 40 children’s books; composer of over 600 songs; Emmy award winning TV producer and composer-writer of musical comedies. I’d like to pause a moment and think on this wonderful woman who is no longer with us.

In this talk I’d like to take you inside the Neutra practice. After some introductory remarks I’ll share some slides with you, going into various projects in depth, and end with a period of questions and answers. We’ll be done here in 90 minutes.

My dad and I were here first in the early 50s when St. Johns Abby invited a group of 5 prominent architects to interview for their new project. It was the group that included architect Marcel Breuer, who ended up with the job. I found out this morning after a third of a century WHY we didn’t get that job! I still remember the image of leaving LA in the high 80s and arriving here a few hours later to below freezing temps; it was quite a transition.

It’s just over 30 years since I was last in town. Let me tell you the story about that; it is touching to me even after a third of a century.

In late 1968 we received a letter from a single lady from St. Paul; could we design a vacation house for her on a Bahamian island from photos and a contour map alone; the budget would not allow for a trip by us to the site. I said yes and the resulting project was one of the most satisfying of our career and one of the last houses my dad worked on. Unfortunately she was unable to construct her dream home because of a stock market reversal. I remember the numbers still; if the market could top 1000, we’d be ON!

About a year later, in late ’69, my father and I were to take a trip to Washington D.C. to attend the opening of an exhibition at the Smithsonian of our work. I asked dad if he’d have an interest to meet Alberta Dowlin on the way home; we could divert via Minneapolis. We did that, and for the first time met the lady who had placed her confidence in us from far away many months earlier. We had a four-hour layover; she met the plane and drove us around while we visited. It was very touching for both sides.

I tried to locate her again on this trip, and guess what, we met with her last Saturday. It’s been nice to meet again after a third of a century! Guess what; the market has finally topped 1000; how about it?

When I decided to speak to a Minnesotan audience of professionals about our practice, I thought I’d like to ask you to relate what you see to the green movement, alternative energy sources and environmental issues, to name a few. These are hot topics these days again. They are matters, however, that have been in our minds for the half century since my dad’s book Survival Through Design was published in the 50s.

By the way, for those who are interested, we have some out-of-print books for sale in our bookstore at www.neutra.org; check us out!

Richard Neutra was born in 1892 in Vienna and attended the technical university there just prior to WW I. Because of the teaching at school and his liberal education, he developed the conviction that an integrated approach to design was central to success. He therefore became an early advocate for the design of buildings with every aspect as an integral part.

As part of the design of the Lovell Health House of 1929, Neutra produced one of his first major efforts at integration of house and landscape. His client was a progressive naturopath of the late 20s with a weekly colum in the L.A. Times. A naturopath was at that time equivalent of a integrated practitioner; someone focused on wellness.

Dr. Lovell stated his program thus:

“Can you design a house that would enhance the health of its occupants?” It was a prophetic assignment; one that became a metaphor for our practice ever since. My dad always insisted that the house be known as the ‘Health House’ in memory of that program.

Neutra provided the requested outdoor ‘sleeping baskets’ in the form of suspended balconies for nude sunbathing and sleeping outdoors. Sports facilities and exercise areas were part of the basic scheme, as were special installations in the kitchen to support natural food preparation, juicing, etc. Parts of the building seemed to extend beyond its footprint into and grabbing onto the landscape; precursors for what were later called ‘spider legs,’ our extended beams and columns placed in the midst of the garden.

The contemporary notion that one can artificially separate issues of interior or landscape design from those of the basic structure itself, really never came up in our practice unless introduced by the client. We always considered the entire project, site, and surrounding neighborhood as part of the design, including all its implications.

Our office at all times had strong feelings about how the landscape should relate to the designs. Most often we would create a rough plan in which massing of trees and shrubs would be indicated with notes on where color was desired. Local nurseries or landscapers were found who supplied plant lists and more detailed plans for our approval.

As we prepare to look at some images, I want to take this occasion to remark on one of my favorite subjects. I’ll call it ‘Context,’ but in a slightly different use. I mean by this the background from which the design and its solution come.

I’m interested in filling you in, from time to time, with ‘inside information’ that will give you a unique context of certain projects where there are specific REASONS for how the project looks, why certain materials were selected, or even how it got built at all.

It is this dimension that is so often NOT COMMUNICATED when all you see are pictures in a magazine or newspaper.

Let’s dim the lights now, and let me illustrate a few of these points with some slides.

Health House – As mentioned, this is the Lovell Health House of 1929. It was like a revelation in its time, materializing on its hillside above the Mexican-style haciendas of the day in the valley below. Dad got the steel industry interested, and negotiated favorable pricing for an all-steel frame to support this open design. The entire framework was erected on the foundation in the space of a couple of weeks. The concrete and plaster were conveyed to their resting places with pumps on the street pushing the mix through hoses to the site. It would have been impossibly expensive to build this building at all with conventional means.

VDL I – Here is the family home on Silverlake designed in 1932 and completed then on hand of a loan from Dutch industrialist Van Der Leeuw. Including his $4,000, the entire budget for the project was less than $8,000 including the lot! You see here the roof trellis that dad added some 20 years later, which was to document the 4th level in a 2-story height limit area. The lowest level was actually a basement, but it contained the garage and furnace rooms. Here is what the front looked like just after a disastrous fire in spring 1963. My dad’s first impulse upon seeing this devastation, at age 72, was to say ‘forget everything; we’ll never recover from this; just junk it all; we’ll never be able to rebuild.’

After some months of reflection, and time to absorb this incredible loss, I discovered that we did have some insurance, and I was able to enlist the sympathy of building officials and politicos to where we were allowed to consider rebuilding on the original slab closely following the original footprint and scope. The new budget, in the $120K range.

RADNA Research House II – Redesigned after the disastrous fire in 1964, I supervised construction of this version for 2 years and even got married on the roof during the framing stage! Here are some views of the building as it emerged after the redesign and construction using insurance funds and contributed materials. Every thing you see here is completely NEW built on the original foundation slab. This was an interesting system; a series of precast concrete joists supporting a thin suspended slab. It protected our archive of drawings during the fire!

Kaufmann – Palm Springs (1946) Commissioned by the same Kaufmann who employed Frank Lloyd Wright at Bear Run for Fallingwater some 7 years earlier, this was to be their ‘winter cottage.’ It started with a budget of $40K and ratcheted upwards progressively to over $300K, which was a fortune 50-odd years ago! One of its features was radiantly cooled floors around the swimming pool so you can walk out to the pool in 100-degree days! It has recently been rescued and reconstituted at a cost of nearly $3M. It has enjoyed unprecedented publicity in all possible publications; perhaps you have seen some of them. My favorite series of slides shows how the building responds to changes in the light.

Tremaine – Also done in 1946, this an unusual construction for California. Nestled in an oak grove in a high fire area, the owners requested the entire building be built of poured concrete! The unusual disposition of high transom openings created an unique lightness of appearance remarkable for this material. This building has suffered from much alteration although the basic structure is still original. An interesting context story here would be my experience while a junior year student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

U.S. Embassy, Karachi – Built in the mid-50s, this was our country’s embassy until a few years ago when the capital of the country was moved. It is now used for state department offices. I saw it on TV a year ago in connection with a piece on security for U.S. installations. I served as project architect and wrote some 1,500 letters during a two-year construction period. Here is one of those cases of context I wanted to share. You see nothing of this by looking at the building as completed.

H.B. Library – Dad and I were both together when we interviewed for this project. He died in early 1970 before the contract could be signed. For a time, there was doubt that the City would proceed with me alone. Finally they did, and the project turned out to be one of the most important of our practice. I visited there again recently, and the enthusiasm of the reference librarians is still quite touching after a quarter century.

This was a great example of what I considered to be an imaginative approach to interiors. I managed to get the contract to do all the furniture design and selection for the project. Instead of opting for 500 chairs of the same kind for readers, as would normally be the case for economy and uniformity, I managed to convince the powers that be, to create about 10 discrete furniture groupings and types. This allowed for a great variety of ambiances for visitors to choose from.

One type was a kind of ‘patio furniture’ arrangement on the lower level close to the water and interior ponds and planters. Another was overstuffed sofas and chairs for reading platforms that were set off from the rest of the area. There were straight chairs for the study carrels which in themselves were varied in outlook. I was amazed again when we visited not long ago, to see how people are drawn to different settings if they are given choices; some prefer a seat with a long view into greenery and a distant landscape. Others opt for a secluded corner where they can be hidden from view by others and closed in with no view at all. We provided all shades of variation between these extremes.

I could speak about this project endlessly; I had a chance to develop more original thinking here than ever before or since on a project. But let me conclude with another context story.

Scheimer – This was the first residential project I worked on after the death of my father. I’d started the design while he was still alive, and he gave me some comments and some help on a rendering. It turns out to be the only drawing of this kind on which we both collaborated. It represents a high point of integration of water, landscape, and light into the interior. An inside waterfall and stream separate the master bedroom wing from the living area.

Canfield – This was an L.A. City school earthquake renewal project. It was created under great travail despite the contractor’s efforts to create mischief and the City’s lack of support by creating an ambivalent client situation and expecting us to perform anyway. It’s a miracle that I was able to achieve what you see here. Again, I could speak for hours on this one alone. We had little role on the interiors here, as regards furniture, but we did select colors and preside over two student mural areas. The context story here is that this project consumed 30 months when it should have taken a third of this time; why it did makes a fascinating tale.

Treetops – Created in the late 70s, this was at first an idea to develop only a swimming pool on a lot next door to our house. I then regrouped and decided to see how much I could cram onto this problem site only 25′ wide at the street, and sloping up at a grade steeper than allowed by the City. Saving a 36′ eucalyptus tree turned out to be a major design challenge, as was the building of the swimming pool along the property line where had been planted a row of trees I didn’t want to lose. We cantilevered the pool deck off the body of the pool itself and saved the trees; hence the appellation for the project inspired by the site in Africa of the same name where you view the animals from the treetops. Here again lies a story behind the selection of wood shingles for the exteriorĊ would that I had the time to go into it in detail; what went through the architect’s mind here, why would a Neutra select such a rustic material as finish for his building?

Oxley House – La Jolla This charming little house overlooking the ocean was built in 1958 for a professor and his wife near the campus of UCSD. A few years ago it was purchased by owners for the sole purpose of demolishing it for its site. They proceeded to vandalize the building, removing the spider legs and part of an overhang, boarding up windows, and generally stripping it of its charm and appeal.

Fortunately, people saw through this and in January 1999, the Site Board of the City of San Diego voted to list this as an historic site! The owners placated the City by agreeing to push the building over on its site to make room for the opulent palace they proposed, relegating the Oxley to ‘guest house’ status. Despite several efforts to contact the owner, no one had called me as of the time I left L.A. I worry that the house will lose its integrity in a flawed effort to restore it.

Gettysburg – The Shrine of the Nation Completed in 1962, this National Park Cyclorama Center has many innovative features that were state-of-the-art in its day. It is the victim of benign neglect. The staff was blissfully ignorant of the reputation of its architect or the value of this building in the matter of architectural history. This was one of my dad’s favorite projects; he was SO honored to think that he, a mere Austrian emigre, should be selected to design a project for this particular location. Now it is threatened with destruction; the victim of crass commercialism. I’ve been leading a campaign over the past three years to get this project listed as a Historic Landmark over the objection of the local Parks Superintendent; a daunting task. The current situation is that the Park service has signed off on a plan which includes demolishing this building! Now it’s up to the Congress; can the Supt. be turned around on this?

If every person with Internet access would support our cause, please sign on to our Web site at www.neutra.org and select the Save Gettysburg page. There you can send a letter to our President with copies to the proper persons. We need 1,000 new letters in the next couple of weeks!

I wish I had unlimited time to discuss more issues of preservation. I’d like to serve on a commission to study the state of preservation in our country. I’d develop a policy that could become a bipartisan commitment by the country to recognize and save a good part of our heritage. This instead of standing by to wring our hands as example after example disappears before the pressure of development. See September’s issue of Architectural Record magazine, and my letter to the editor, hopefully to appear this month.

Rice House – The only modern house in Richmond in ’68, it still is. More context stories on this one, for which we don’t have the time this evening.

Delcourt House – This is our only example of a house in France. It was completed in 1968 in Croix, near Lille. As far as I know, it is still in pristine condition. But not long ago, I got word that the owners wished to sell out for a multiple housing project. Last month the word was that the Government had stepped in and named it a monument. This will protect it for the moment; we’ll see.

Furniture – Boomerang, Cantilever, Tables, Armchair. Ready to produce again. Need an interested modern furniture producer.

Exhibition – I’d like to show you some panels of a show that I curated first in the 80s and then again in ’92 on the occasion of my dad’s Centennial. It was shown again at UCLA again in late ’98. It is now being displayed in its new condensed format at Macalester College, on Grand Ave. in St. Paul, with a gallery opening this Friday, from 6:00 on. Do take in this show.

Lights please?

May I recognize Devin Colman, curator from Macalester, who, in a manner of speaking is really responsible for me being here, and who will welcome you over there next Friday; Devin?

I hope I’ve given you a sense of the sorts of projects that we’ve done over the years. As you can see, our design is very all-encompassing and we really find no separation between the landscape, the building, and its interior or exterior. We’ve always had an awareness of sustainability of the designs and a concern for the planet and energy conservation in all our work. We welcome the increasing popular awareness of these issues at long last.

I’ve appreciated the chance to communicate this, and I thank you for your attention.

In the remaining minutes, I’ll be pleased to discuss any questions or comments you may wish to make; please raise your hand and speak up loudly so all may hear! Remind me to repeat the question if I forget!