Dion Neutra

Dion; reflecting at Roatan '16

Dion Neutra, the son of the 20th-century architect Richard Neutra and a practitioner in his own right who also waged a decades-long war to save his father’s iconic buildings from the ravages of time, remodeling, and demolition, died at his home on Neutra Place in Silver Lake, a neighborhood studded with Neutra architecture. He was 93.

The cause was cancer, his brother, Dr. Raymond Neutra, said.

As the scion of an architecture practice synonymous with International Style modernism, Neutra was a link to the generation of 20th-century architectural titans that included his father, Mies Van Der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Eero Saarinen, Alvar Aalto, Louis Kahn, and Rudolf Schindler (a Neutra friend and rival). Richard Neutra, a Viennese émigré who came to the United States in 1923 to work with Frank Lloyd Wright, arrived in Los Angeles in 1925, the year before his son was born, and began building. Together, Richard and Dion Neutra exerted their influence upon the built environment and visual aesthetics of Los Angeles for nearly a century.

The father and son, individually and in collaboration, executed hundreds of houses and civic projects. Many of them received laurels from the American Institute of Architects, were designated as landmarks, and made alluring motion-picture cameos—as Richard Neutra’s 1929 Lovell Health House (the first steel-frame dwelling in the United States) did in the 1997 movie Hollywood Confidential. The lithe and airy structures were executed in a palette of no-nonsense glass, steel, concrete, and wood—gleaming and seemingly machine-made. At once elegant and breezy, and articulating Southern Californians’ desire for an indoor-outdoor lifestyle, Neutra architecture achieved global renown as a symbol of Los Angeles, much like the music of Brian Wilson, the art of Ed Ruscha, and the novels of Raymond Chandler.

Dion Neutra continued the practice after his father’s death, in 1970, completing buildings of his own, such as the Huntington Beach Central Library and Cultural Center, declared “magnificent” by the Los Angeles Times when it opened in 1975. With its soothing, earth-toned interiors, copious plantings and water features, the facility has the feeling of a futuristic pavilion sprouting from a botanical garden. It remains a vibrant focal point of the community and, despite some alterations over time, is arguably the younger Neutra’s most significant project.

But the architect was perhaps best known for his work as an aggressive and sometimes prickly steward of the Neutra legacy. He campaigned vigorously for the preservation of modernist buildings, including his father’s Cyclorama Center at the Gettysburg National Military Park, a 1962 visitor facility that the National Park Service earmarked for demolition in the 1990s. (Dion Neutra was project architect.)

That battle dragged on for more than a decade and generated national headlines, as architectural historians, architects, and fans of modernism fought Civil War historians, reenactors, and the National Park Service to a standstill. Neutra helped to collect thousands of letters in defense of the structure, including one from Frank Gehry, who wrote that Neutra’s building “reflects the highest ideals of his own time, and deserves the highest appreciation of ours.” The stalemate was finally broken in 2013, when the Cyclorama Center—once deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and listed as “endangered” by the World Monuments Fund—was demolished.

In Southern California’s overheated real-estate market, Neutra houses can carry outsize price tags, evidence of their significance and desirability. Even so, an alarming number of them have been bought as teardowns. “There should be a national will to save these buildings,” Neutra told this newspaper in 2004. “It shouldn’t have to be a one-man crusade.”

Dion Neutra, who had no middle name, was born in Los Angeles on October 8, 1926. His mother, Dione Niedermann Neutra, a German-Swiss vocalist and cellist, recalled in a 1978 oral history going to see Al Jolson in a Vitaphone film a month after her son’s birth, which she forever connected with the birth of talking pictures. Her son gravitated toward the drafting table early. “My dad started me drawing when I was 11,” Neutra said in 2001. He was motivated, in part, by a desire to earn allowance money in order to purchase a violin. In a phone interview, Raymond Neutra recalled that their father’s “idea of education was to have his sons tag along and be involved with him in some way, on the assumption that this was an unusual opportunity.” It was one that Dion, 12 years older than Raymond, took full advantage of. In 1941-42, he was executing drawings for the elder Neutra’s Nesbitt House. By 1944, Dion Neutra, a 17-year-old junior at John Marshall High School, was identified by the Magazine of Architecture as a collaborator with his famous father.

After service in the United States Navy during the Second World War, Neutra pursued his architecture studies at USC, graduating in 1950, following a junior year abroad at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich and a side trip to Paris to meet Le Corbusier. Neutra then resumed work in his father’s firm. Accolades came quickly: a First Honor award from the American Institute of Architects in 1954 and an AIA Merit award the following year.

Father and son worked together through the 1950s amid patches of turbulence. In 1961, Dion Neutra described “frustration, resentment, and distortion” in the relationship. After a brief stint apart, they were again joined in practice from 1965 until Richard Neutra’s death in 1970. “Artistically,” his mother said, “they got along very well.” (Dione Neutra died in 1990.)

Neutra was as handy with a set of irons as he was with a T-square. In 1967, he shot a hole-in-one on the 180-yard sixth hole at DeBell Golf Club, in Burbank, earning a mention in the Los Angeles Times sports pages. (He used a two iron.) He would later repeat the feat on the Old Course at St. Andrews, in Scotland.

In his later years, Neutra was the picture of the easy-going Southern California retiree who would snazz himself up with a Western bolo tie. He projected a kindly, avuncular demeanor, but retained the flinty, European-intellectual core he inherited from his parents. A reputation for cantankerousness and feather-ruffling preceded him, driven by the architect’s steel-clad certitude that the Neutra legacy was worth fighting for.

Some of the tactics Neutra employed in the name of preservation verged on guerilla theatre. In the summer of 2004, he turned up at the Cyclorama Center in Gettysburg with a length of heavy chain, demonstrating how he would attach himself to the building if and when a demolition squad arrived. “I’ll confront the bulldozers and say, ‘Take me with the building, gentlemen!’” he proclaimed, as battlefield tourists and broadcast-news teams gathered to watch.

After the Cyclorama Center was demolished, the ground where it had stood for 51 years was groomed in emulation of 1863. (The aging Neutra did not, in the end, chain himself to the building.) It was the exact thing he had inveighed against—a simulacrum of the past. “There’s no way we’ll ever get back to 1863,” Neutra railed on the Gettysburg battlefield. “Nor should we. That’s revisionist history.”

The loss was also acutely personal. “They become part of who you are,” he said of the buildings he and his father created. “So to take one of those down is like cutting off part of my arm.”

In the early 2000s, after Neutra architecture, and all things midcentury modern, had swung back into vogue, Neutra allowed the licensing of a limited number of Neutra designs—a typeface, furniture, and house numbers—to House Industries. Asking prices for Neutra homes were on the rise. Neutra found that they had now become fetish objects. He also discovered that the avowed Neutra fans who bought them often had little interest in collaborating with him on restorations, interpreting his overtures as meddlesome or his intentions as worryingly purist. “We keep getting people having their interpretation of ‘what Neutra would have wanted,’” he bristled, “when Neutra is around to be asked!”

Neutra maintained a studio in his Silver Lake home, the Reunion House, designed by his father in 1950, on Neutra Place. (Formerly Argent Place, it was rechristened in 1992). From there, he served as executive consultant and project director of the Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design, a nonprofit foundation established in 1962 to advance modernist and ecological principles, and wrote several books, including a self-published memoir in 2017. The nearby Neutra Office Building, at 2379 Glendale Boulevard, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

Neutra’s final project was a house in Honduras for the younger of his two sons, Nick Neutra, completed in 2018 and the subject of a 2017 documentary short, Neutra in Roatan. In addition to his sons and brother, he is survived by his wife, Lynn Smart Neutra; two grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and two stepchildren from a previous marriage.

“I’ve lived somewhat reactively,” Neutra wrote in his memoir, “in that my career was suggested by others (my dad), and I followed that lead.” Accordingly, the son’s design approach toed the family line. Yet he balked at the suggestion that there might be an overarching Neutra dogma of style or manner. “We’re not about formalism,” he argued in 2001. “We’re about humanism.”

“That’s what architecture is about,” Neutra said, well into his mid-70s and still, by his own account, clocking 16-hour work days. “You go out to the edge, and you try to push the envelope and do something. There are always risks involved.”

Preserving this kind of architecture, Neutra admitted, involved risks of its own. “My wife gives me hell because I’ve kept the original 1950s Case toilet that doesn’t flush right,” the architect said of his own house two years ago. “’Listen,’ I tell her. ‘This is the toilet that Richard Neutra sat on—I’m not getting rid of it.’”

Written by Mark Rozzo