neutraVDL
About the Site:
VDL Research House I (1932)
The year 1932 was filled with preparation for the design of the Research House which was to play an important part in the lives of Richard and Dione Neutra and their second son Dion, who became an architect. Neutra considered carefully what he might design, resolved at once to acknowledge the generous patronage of Van der Leeuw, and to demonstrate the latest technology to serve his family’s biological and psychological needs. He named the project the Van der Leeuw Research House to express his intent. Neutra’s progressive design approach was directed to how human organisms behave and survive, especially in restricted space. He wanted to throw new light upon the preconceived cliché of “architecture as a space art” with applied biology, by measuring and observing human responses to various biological and psychological stimuli. The VDL Research House was conceived as a laboratory to demonstrate that restriction of space need not mean a restriction of well-being. He sought every means to give the feeling of space efficiency, of comfortable accommodation in a restricted floor area which he felt would have to be typical for many kinds of housing in future generations.

The limited treeless site inspired Neutra to strive to demonstrate his ability to achieve privacy and spacious living despite the constraints and density of the neighborhood. Unlike adjacent one-story low houses, he built vertically to take advantage of the views over the reservoir, the San Gabriel Mountains to the far north, and his own peaceful garden to the rear. For privacy the first floor of the north wall was likewise unbroken. Neutra planted fast-growing trees and other plants to the very edge of the sidewalk, providing solar protection and privacy from Silver Lake Boulevard. Taking advantage of vague enforcement of setback requirements, he built to the street line and to the full 60-foot width north and south as well.

Neutra’s two-story plan with basement and roof deck reflects the dual purpose of the VDL Research House as both home and office. On the ground level was the drafting room suite with its own separate front and rear access. The front entrance door led to a small reception area and Neutra’s personal design studio, connecting by stairway to the family quarters on the second floor. From the sleeping terrace on this floor one could reach by a ship’s ladder the solarium rooftop with its panoramic view across Silver Lake and the opposite shore.

Unlike the experimental metal skeleton of the Health House, Neutra used less costly wood balloon-framing dimensioned to accommodate standard industrial steel window sash, but the modular rhythms and crisp detailing of design gave it some of the same visual qualities. The wood-frame design was also believed to provide elasticity in earthquakes. Prefabricated concrete joists and a suspended slab provided a fire-retardant base for the first floor. Continuous metal casements throughout determined a precise modular system of milled 4 x 4 wood columns. On the front elevation stucco bands emphasized the horizontal lines to the maximum. Panels on the rear elevation were of painted pressed wood. The original house utilized two gravity furnaces with push-button controls. Shading of the second-story windows to the west was provided by a five-foot overhang with an aluminum-faced drop awning at its eave. Below, first-story windows were shielded by a heavy planting of pittosporum and acacias.

Roof shelter with partial glazed
windscreen, 1950's.
In keeping with the research theme, Neutra solicited new building materials from manufacturers whom he convinced would derive publicity from the VDL Research House. Many new synthetic materials were introduced. All exterior walls were lined with aluminum foil for insulation. The roof was finished with aluminum capsheet with wood slat decking. He persuaded and proposed to Libbey-Owens-Ford to fabricate a sandwich panel of aluminum and plate glass, which he used for bathroom wainscoting to reflect heat. In the living room Neutra used extensively natural Masonite pressed wood paneling, which was rubbed with wax to a rich brown color. Folding industrial metal-and-glass doors led to the sleeping terrace. For wainscoting of this area Neutra proposed to a manufacturer to develop dark blue baked enameled steel panels, not seen before in a residence. All this was a deliberate attempt to combine the newest materials to display their usefulness in a home setting and as a demonstration for clients. The donation of many of these novel materials made the final construction possible.

During the construction, many custom details were incorporated by the carpenters to Neutra’s design. All the furniture except for movable chairs was built-in to simplify cleaning and avoid dead corners. Even the beds were built-in and storage drawers provided below. In the breakfast area the washtub doubled as a base for a fold up table. In the kitchen prepared food could be placed in metal-lined drawers and discretely pulled through to the dining area for serving. Although very small, the kitchen was efficiently designed in every detail—even outside ventilation for the garbage can and provision for purified water.

Throughout this compact house, only 2100 square feet on two floors, Neutra was conscious of psychological effects of space and illusion. His use of mirrors made small spaces seem larger and generous glass areas expanded the small house to the out-of-doors. Even night effects were anticipated by eliminating the disruptive reflections of interior lighting. In what became a Neutra trademark, the outer edge of the soffit overhang concealed strip lighting with incandescent bulbs placed every six inches. It was a technical detail, which achieved the serenity of a night view of Silver Lake and its distant lights. Also in his use of sound-insulated cork floors and his choice of neutral colors, gray linoleum for kitchen counter tops and a gray wool rug for the living room, Neutra underscored the tranquility needed for human occupancy. He did not want to compete with the changing light and natural color of the outside greenery and felt that color accents in cushions and pottery gave sufficient relief.

Like many architects, Neutra had only a small working staff of draftsmen. He called on outside consultants for electrical, mechanical and structural engineering. The fame of his buildings drew the young and devoted eager to gain experience under Neutra, which was quite informal given the confines of this small house. In later years Neutra usually worked alone in his bedroom and sent design sketches downstairs in a two-stop lift to the drafting room to be developed by his assistants whom he referred to as “collaborators” to encourage their efforts. Among the first were Gregory Ain and Harwell Hamilton Harris; Ain stayed four years between 1928 and 1933. Rafael Soriano was also a disciple in this early period. When the VDL Research House was finished Ain and his wife occupied the one-room north apartment on the ground floor. Both Ain and Harris worked on studies for “Rush City Reformed,” a conceptual plan for a model metropolis of one million. Harris vividly recalls Neutra’s admiration for Henry Ford and his mass-production of the automobile. Neutra marveled at Sweet’s Catalog, then in a single volume, from which ready-made parts could be selected—a possibility unavailable in Europe. Also he recalls Neutra’s admiration for collaborative architecture, “team work” as Walter Gropius called it.
[back to top]