neutraVDL
About the Site:
Richard Neutra’s Early Career
and Genesis of the VDL Research House
Richard Neutra believed intensely in the architectural future of the United States long before he arrived in this country. Earlier, Neutra had discovered Frank Lloyd Wright’s drawings in a volume published by the Wasmuth Press of Berlin. This book and the Vienna seminars held by Adolf Loos, who had traveled in America in the 1890’s, awakened his desire to visit this country. Europe was not without its stimulating architects—Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, Erich Mendelsohn, and Loos himself—all of whose work Neutra knew firsthand. But it was the New World that beckoned. The skyscrapers of New York and Chicago and the innovations of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright were overwhelming accomplishments that Europe could not equal. He felt a fundamental difference: Europe venerated the past whereas America looked to the future. For him, America represented the opportunities of a technological civilization of which architecture was to be the supreme expression.

Neutra’s personal link to the United States was the young Viennese architect, R.M. Schindler, whom he had met at Loos’ seminars. Older by five years, Schindler had emigrated earlier, having worked with Wright before choosing Los Angeles for his independent practice. Schindler proved a sympathetic and useful correspondent in planning Neutra’s departure. After extended efforts to emigrate, Neutra arrived in New York in October 1923. He first worked in New York. Then following Schindler’s path, he worked in Chicago and briefly with Wright at Taliesin in Wisconsin. Early in 1925 Neutra with his wife Dione and their infant son Frank L., arrived in Los Angeles and rented a portion of Schindler’s house on Kings Road. The Neutra family stayed nearly four years. The two architects formed a loose association, which they called the “Architectural Group for Industry and Commerce.” Their principal surviving joint effort is an ambitious competition scheme of 1926 for the League of Nations in Geneva. Thus Schindler’s own remarkable house on Kings Road, now in public hands, was the starting place for two celebrated California architects who introduced America to what we now regard as modern architecture.

Neutra’s first two commissions, the Jardinette Apartments and the Lovell House or Health House (as Neutra preferred to call it), both in Los Angeles, are similar in architectural aesthetic; both are composed of box-like forms, flat roofs, unbroken horizontal windows alternating with plain, banded spandrels extended to form balconies. Yet in construction they are quite different. For the apartments Neutra chose reinforced concrete, which Schindler had favored in his early projects. The long spans of reinforced concrete beams allowed for unbroken window strips. The Jardinette Apartments were completed late in 1928 during a time when the Health House design was well underway. The Health House design is more modular and more delicately detailed due to its unusual lightweight prefabricated steel skeleton and concrete-sprayed wall surfaces. It was the first metal-framed house in America. The Health House was strikingly photogenic and brought Neutra international fame. It and the Jardinette Apartments were among the few American examples included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1932 exhibition entitled “Modern Architecture.”

Neutra had hoped that he and Schindler with their combined efforts could compete with the established traditional offices. However, during four years of loose association and due to Schindler’s very individual architectural conceptions, this association came to an end in 1929 when Neutra, as American delegate to CIAM (Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne), was asked to present a paper at its 1930 meeting in Brussels. Neutra left for Europe by way of Japan where he was invited to lecture. He subsequently lectured in Switzerland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Holland. Neutra’s first book published in Stuttgart in 1927, Wie baut Amerika? (How America Builds), together with the widely published Health House in European magazines, had made him a celebrity.

It was during this European visit that a Dutch industrialist, Cornelius H. Van der Leeuw, knowing of Neutra’s work, asked to make his acquaintance and invited him to give three lectures. Neutra, with his wife Dione, stayed in Van der Leeuw’s impressive Rotterdam home which was a technological marvel with many innovations such as an electric system of controls for lighting and moving window draperies. As it later turned out, Van der Leeuw came to be the sponsor of Neutra’s third executed building, his own house and studio on Silver Lake.

Upon his return to Los Angeles in 1931 Neutra established his family and his practice in a bungalow in the Echo Park district, not far from Silver Lake. He soon received a surprise visit from Van der Leeuw who was anxious to see Neutra’s work. Impressed by the Jardinette Apartments and the Health House but also taken aback by Neutra’s modest rented quarters, he offered to sponsor the building of a personal residence of the architect’s own design. “How much do you need?” he asked an astounded Neutra, who mumbled a ridiculously low figure of $3,000. When the money was offered, he managed with additional money borrowed from relatives and friends and a large portion of donated materials, to build his own house. The final cost including the land was under $8,000. After weeks of searching for a suitable site at the end of 1931, one easily accessible and a good location for an office as well as a home for raising a family, Neutra selected a 60 ft. by 70 ft. lot between two streets, facing the Central City Reservoir of Silver Lake, which was then only 100 feet from the property front.
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