On January 18, 2020, members of the families of three of his marriages and his blood relatives converged from across the United States and Mexico to break bread and reminisce at the Neutra Museum and then to play music and catch up with each other’s lives at the Neutra VDL studio and residences.
On January 19, the public was invited to a program at the 1953 Eagle Rock Recreation Center designed by Richard and supervised by Dion as a young architect at the beginning of his career. Something like 150 people attended to hear music, brief comments by youngest son Nick Neutra and Dion’s wife Lynn Smart. This was followed by an illustrated lecture by Dion’s younger brother Dr. Raymond Richard Neutra who explained that Dion’s architectural legacy exemplified the commitment of renegade architects at the time of his birth in 1926 to use architecture to serve humanity and the planet and not just the egos of the powerful.
Dion left many ripples, but perhaps the largest ripple will be his sizeable bequest to the Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design whose goal is to foster design that serves humanity and the planet and seeks evidence about which designs work and why. It also aims to preserve and use the designed and written Neutra legacy.
After this talk, a film specially prepared by John Kiffe, Francois Maurin and Tavo Olmos incorporated many video interviews of Dion over the years to trace his life. This was followed by a reception at the Neutra Museum, which was displaying architectural photography of the Neutra’s works and those of other modernists.
As President and Chief Consultant of the Neutra Institute, and Dion Neutra, Inc. I, Dion Neutra, have been involved with ideas about how to preserve or enhance the experience at Silver Lake, for now, nearly 9 decades; since 1932, actually.
That was the date my father, finished construction of his first version of a live-work environment sited close to the water in Silver Lake, which he chose for his site, based on its urban beauty, location and potential back in those days. In the pic below, you see me, at about age 8, at left, three years later, admiring the reflections of the trees on the peninsula in what we called ‘The East Bay’.
This view was one of the attractions that dad listed in his assessment of this, as a site choice for his advanced model for such a multi-purpose structure. It was named after a Dutch philanthropist, VDL, who loaned him a modest $3500 to help fund this effort, which upon completion immediately attracted international attention, and landed dad as representative in the early modern show mounted by the Museum of Modern Art, New York in that year.
I’m in the process of recording some of what we together and me, solo, have thought about this in a book called MY NINE DECADES IN SILVER LAKE due out some time later this year.
You can imagine the consternation with which we greeted the news in the early 50s, that DWP had decided to close off the East Bay and plant lawn there instead! That this would be locked off from public access was yet another insult. My father immediately came up with the idea of a large reflection Pool that would recapture at least some of the lost water views enjoyed for years by the public owning property on the East side of this park.
The DWP rejected this idea, and instead started a program of watering and mowing lawn of 6 acres in area from that period on. Fast forward. 60 years later, DWP finally relented and allowed this area to be developed to what has become to be known as ‘the meadow’. This has been enjoyed as a passive recreation and relaxation area since.
In the illustration below, we see famed photographer, Julius Shulman with my father, setting up a shot in one of many photo shoots they managed together over a very long period, starting in 1936 and continuing on until the photographers death just a few years ago. You could say Neutra launched Shulman on a world famous practice.
In 1970, April 16, my father passed away in Germany of a massive heart attack. He was photographing a project of ours in Wupertal. An associate snapped this pic of him some 15 minutes before. As you can see, he was at the top of his game to the very end!
A scant week later, the very first Earth Day was celebrated; April 22, 1970. I thought to myself, ‘What a shame that dad didn’t live to see this day; he’d been sounding the alarm about the health of the planet since the publication of his seminal tome, Survival Through Design of 1954. Had the world paid attention to some of what he espoused in that book, we’d be in much better shape today!
This irony gave rise to a specialized garden design I came up with, for the then fenced off lawn area across from the VDL house, which had by then, been rebuilt by me, after a disastrous fire in 1963. I came upon the idea that the City could make headlines by designating an actual physical site for the commemoration of Earth Day, an annual event. Here is an update of what that design looked like 45 years ago.
During the years, I had more detailed ideas in response to various initiatives put forth by the DWP, meeting with them numerous times, attempting to convince them for example to operate the lake at a much higher level, so as to reduce the views onto the offensive blacktop banks, which had come to surround this lake (in contrast to how it looked in the early days, natural banks; weeping willows and no service road all around).
I learned because of State Dam regulations that a ‘freeboard’ of at least 5-7 feet would have to be maintained, to mitigate imagined ‘Tsunami Effect’ in case of an earthquake. To make this even worse, in the 70s the DWP suddenly announced that, in its wisdom, it had decided to rebuild the South Dam to a more secure earthquake proof design. Unfortunately, this also proposed to abandon what we called ‘the South East Bay’ a portion of the reservoir which extended into what became the dog park. See illustration above. Note how the water came right to the road; no service road inside. Again, stake holders around that corner of the lake, lost their views. This was exacerbated by the decision to raise the height of the dam an additional 10’, further blocking off views to the water even more.
See below for an early response in which I suggested a pool in lieu of non-reflective treatment. I called it ‘the SE Pool’. Note that this would have replaced the water area as it existed before the relocation of the dam! A vain hope of saving some of the water view for a considerable number of people.
About 10 years ago, now, I came up with an idea designed to mitigate the onerous views onto the blacktop banks, whose appearance had become even more unsightly because of the patching that DWP had found necessary, giving rise to what people called ‘tiger stripes’.
Since it was unlikely that the water level could ever be raised to within a few feet of the level of the service road, how about a series of ‘board walks’ designed to allow an alternate experience of this gem of the city. Ramp down and walk along close to the water, and then back up again after a time? I called this ‘The Board Walks of Silver Lake’.
This map also served as a guide to icons of modern architecture around the lake for use of visitors. (see roster at left). Below, see view of south dam before installation of BD-5. Imagine how much more interesting this view would be, if that vast expanse view of dam were broken up, not to speak of the option of enjoyment of getting down closer to the water!
In 2017, the VDL was honored by being selected as a ‘National Historic Monument’; the highest honor in our country reserved only for the very top examples of importance, historically. The ceremony was attended by Dion, congressman Adam Schiff, and others, as a bronze plaque was affixed to the wall near the entrance.
This gets us back to my plan for Ecology Garden. Note that one of its features is an effort to recall the role water had played in dad’s selection of this site. How about a connection from the street out front of the monument leading the eye back to the lake in the background?
What about the notion of commemoration of this ground as a site to focus attention once a year in April to why we celebrate Earth Day? What is the message being communicated by this celebration? This site could be the focus of a big rally featuring a world class speaker, to be covered by TV, and seen world-wide; putting LA on the map, as one of the only cities, to so honor this occasion?
At the same time, I had envisioned the idea of commemorating pioneers in the ecology movement, such as Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, Richard Neutra and others. This list could be augmented from time to time, as new candidates emerged and were honored. There was a small parking area provided to allow for school buses primarily.
I had the idea that each of these pioneers would receive a weatherproof display case extolling their life and contributions surround this pool. During the year, park rangers could ferry visitors, especially children around, explaining the role these people played leading up to the final decision to celebrate Earth Day yearly.
Would it not be cool, if the Master Plan could advocate this reworking of the meadow area?
What better way to honor the only Historic Monument in our area, than this park with its water feature focusing attention on this piece now hidden by trees from the West, as well as recreating, to the extent possible, the historic view from it to its historic site; the expanse of silver Lake?
There would actually be more lawn area in this plan, than is the case at present. As a bonus there could be an ‘Old Faithful’ much like the one which appeared at Echo Park, many years after I first proposed such a feature here. Note the tuned ceramic vessels to pick up or emanate sounds to go with these ‘eruptions’ perhaps every quarter hour, rather than wait an hour!
Portions of this post were first published in 2014; others in 2018.
Read and Sign the petition
RAISE THAT RESERVOIR WORKING LEVEL 15-20′! BREAK UP THE VIEW ONTO THOSE UGLY BANKS! 450 people signed the petition at that time through end of 2014
No matter what part of the world you live in, you can vote to help us influence how this lake transitions to a Public Park within the next five or so years. Sign and get others to join in to overwhelm the City of Los Angeles with interest here, sufficient to make them pause with their plans to give these options serious consideration.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Thanks for your support. Announce this to your Social Media outlets and contacts for support; make this go VIRAL!
The Dion Neutra/Reunion House is the only example of a firm designed project on which both father and son worked, but not concurrently. The house was envisioned in 1950, as a hypothetical “grandparent’s house” where family reunions would be held. The senior Neutras lived in it for two years starting in 1964. From 1966 on, it has been the home of Dion Neutra. In 1968, he added an apartment above the garage; 2440A. The Reunion is the most private of all the homes in the Neutra Colony; in addition to a selected glimpse of the lake, it is hidden in a forest of trees and ponds, creating an amazing tranquil setting, while masking the undesirable aspects which used to be seen on the street.
The Neutra Practice celebrates 91 years of service to the world community this October, 2017. Like Rotary, we’ve always seen ourselves as instruments of service. Founded in 1926 by my father Richard Neutra, I’ve presided over things since 1970, when he passed from us at the peak of his carrier at 78.
I’ve been in position now for nearly 50 years; longer now than he was, during his life.
In the late 40s the Housing Authority of Los Angeles announced a Federally funded new program for the construction of 10,000 units of public housing. Armed with the experience he’d garnered with work on public housing in Texas and San Pedro, Dad was in a position to be selected for the major plum of that program; Elysian Park Heights; a 3300-unit project to be sited in Elysian Park.
Because of the politics it became clear that he’d have to join forces with someone of like experience to be successful. He made a deal with architect Robert Alexander, who’d designed Baldwin Hills Village. Together they presented and prevailed. As the 40s wound down, they set up shop in the garage of the VDL addition facing Edgewater Terrace.
In that space were brought people like Si Eisner, planner, and a few personnel to begin the site analysis and preliminary planning. As that progressed, it became apparent that it would be ideal if a larger space could be obtained in which to collect more people and expertise to execute this very large and complex project.
Dad undertook to find a site and design a building. A spot a few blocks away was found and the design of what would first be called the ‘Planning Professions Building’ ; later the Neutra Office Building proceeded apace. By early 1950 it was ready for construction, which was completed by our favorite contractor, Red Marsh, within the span of just a few months.
In short order, we populated this building with staff, now augmented to about 10 to 12 people for Neutra and Alexander, in a rear drafting room, and associated engineers in the front part of the building. My first wife and I occupied the upstairs apartment during this first 18 months. Our first-born son Greg spent the first six months of his life there.
Because of politics the entire public housing program was aborted by the City of LA. just as our project was being made ready to go to bid. The plug was pulled and we lost the whole thing. In subsequent years the site was taken over to build Dodger Stadium; a blatant misuse of land that had been obtained by Eminent Domaine for a public purpose!
Having tooled up for greatness, the partnership shopped for other joint work. Early on, we did city planning studies for Sacramento, Tulsa, the island of Guam. Later design of the US Embassy in Pakistan, Visitor Centers for the National Park Service, and design for buildings on several University campuses, along with Palos Verdes High School. Also several other elementary schools. In the end, design of the LA County Hall of Records in downtown.
All this happened as the 50s wound down, and the building had become known as the Neutra Office Building. As the partnership came apart in the early 60s, the building was used by an outfit called ‘Lakeside Architects’.
In early 1963, because of a fire at VDL, the Neutra practice was moved overnight to this optional site, and worked there in the front part of the building until the end of the century. In 2000, the project was selected as City monument #640. It was elected to the National Register for Historic Places in 2003.
Many of the later iconic designs associated with the Neutra practice were created in this space over the course of several decades.
I had moved the practice up to my home office studio on Neutra place by the first years of 2000, and began to rent out the front part of the Neutra Office Building and the two rear apartments as such, having inherited the building upon my mother’s death in 1990.
I thought it might be interesting to trace the transition of these usages to a new existence and purpose, the NEUTRA INSTITUTE MUSEUM OF SILVER LAKE. That was launched in summer of 2014. This is what Dennis thought might be of interest to this audience. Let’s see some images…
We see here a view of how the building looked upon its first completion…
Series of some 30 slides, depicting development of the building over its first half century, culminating in how it looks today as NEUTRA INSTITUTE MUSEUM OF SILVER LAKE both from interior and exterior.
To wind it up, some flyers for current shows and books which have appeared in the past couple of years.
This is my baby. I led the drawing crew, supervised construction and attended the opening with dad with all the city officials in attendance. I’ve long decried the desecrations that the Rec and Parks Department visited on its ward. How could all this happen to a City Monument?
Rather than sweat a tortuous fund raiser from private sources, I think the City’s feet should be held to the fire to where funds are extracted from some coffer and it pays for its own transgressions!
I would serve at a reduced rate to oversee these restorations! I would ask the Parks Department to agree to operate within the building as we envisioned it for a year, and then report any perceived tweaks they felt, at that point, were needed to suit their current needs.
The VDL Research House II and the original version of Painted Desert Visitors Center, AZ have been chosen with 20 other historic sites by outgoing Secretary of Interior to NATIONAL HISTORIC LANDMARKS!
This is the highest level of appreciation for important Historic Sites and is a great honor for us here at the Institute!
The program is presided over by the National Park Service and LA This Week did a feature about the designations
Ironically, it was to this same honor that our Gettysburg Cyclorama Visiitors Center (same vintage as Painted Desert; 1960s) was nominated to, about 15 years ago with 20 other candidates. It was the only one NOT chosen at that time to be so honored!
Instead, some years later, the National Park Service presided over its destruction and grinding to powder on its site in 2013!
My father published his at age 70. I’m starting mine at age 90. This first draft will be augmented in future editions, energy permitting. Stay tuned…
Below is an excerpt from the book:
Writing one’s autobiography would seem like a good time to try and summarize what one’s life philosophy has been like.
Looking back, it would seem for one thing, that I’ve lived somewhat reactively, in that my career was suggested by others (my dad), and I followed that lead, however much I’ve enjoyed the profession since.
I think I’ve basically always assumed things were ‘possible’, and set out to actuate them once the course was set. In many cases, I created something out of nothing, and introduced concepts that the client might not have thought of as part of the basic program. I admit emulating this from dad, who was fabulously talented in doing this, on almost every project.
I like to think that I was basically an optimist and approached the challenge with the best intentions and hopes. That I often was blocked or frustrated was more about the “NIMBYs” in my life than a flaw in the proposed course of action.
Pretty much throughout my life, I’ve lived with a sense of urgency. The feeling that there was much to be accomplished, and perhaps not enough time to do it. For this reason, I’ve been active 16 to 18 hours per day, always seeming to have an agenda yet to be addressed.
I do think I had much more potential to do significant works. Regret not having the chance to find out. This was especially true after my dad’s passing. Kept trying by putting it out there in the late 80s and since, that the practice was still vital and available for work.
Architect Dion Neutra has led the Neutra firm for the last half of its illustrious nine decades of service. Dion’s work and unique experience serve to further secure the Neutra legacy; Richard Neutra is revered the world over as one of the most influential architects of our time.
Dion’s son, Nick Neutra, is in the process of building a multi-structure complex on the Honduran island of Roatan. Dion and Nick formed the team to conceptualize the project starting in 2007. This cooperative effort represents a milestone in a tradition of creative expression.
A feature-length documentary is being proposed that will chronicle this recent chapter in the Neutra story: the tenth island project of the Neutra practice. In addition, Dion is concurrently producing a book, The Island Projects of the Neutra Practice.
The film will explore three generations of father-son relationships, going back to the first Neutra island project, The Windshield House, Fisher’s Island, in 1936, and culminating with the Roatan project. The narrative will focus on the universal challenges and rewards of the creative process.
The current collaboration between Nick and Dion presents a unique opportunity to enhance the Neutra legacy. With funding secured, this film will further document and preserve that history for generations to come.
Produced by Tavo Olmos & John Kiffe
Director of Photography: John Kiffe
Editor: François Maurin
Music: Jim Kimo West, Guitar Stories, “Na Koa Moku O Keawe”
Playing for Change, Gimme Shelter
Special thanks to Dion and Nick Neutra