On a Modernist’s Modernist: Richard Neutra

Pasadena architect and Neutra expert Barbara Lamprecht discusses the modern architect’s views on building with nature, his Pasadena homes and much more.

From 1923 until his death in 1970, architect Richard Neutra made Los Angeles his home. The Vienna-born architect rose to prominence designing modernist residences in Southern California, starting with the Lovell Health House in Los Feliz, a 1929 landmark using store-bought materials and erected in a mere 40 hours; his iconic flat-topped Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs followed in 1946. The Health House is a hallmark of International Style architecture, championed by masters like Philip Johnson, and a precursor to midcentury modernism; both movements were characterized by clean lines, geometric forms and the use of mass-produced industrial materials. In Pasadena, Neutra left his mark on two homes: the Clark House (1957) and the Perkins House (1955). That period also saw his involvement with the Case Study House program, which commissioned important modern architects to design affordable housing for soldiers returning from World War II. Their simple designs accenting horizontal planes and incorporating the outdoors were characterized by the same principles Neutra learned from his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom he worked as an assistant.

But all of Neutra’s projects reflected his philosophy. “For him, modernism was not something you impose on people. The point of his architecture is that it provides opportunities for you to acquit your life in ways you could never imagine. That’s what makes a good architect,” says architectural historian Dr. Barbara Lamprecht, a leading expert on the work of Richard Neutra, who will speak on his use of landscape architecture June 3 at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. The author of several books on the leading modernist, including Taschen’s Richard Neutra 1892-1970: Survival Through Design (2004) and the art publisher’s comprehensive Neutra: Complete Works (2000), Lamprecht is a trained architect, a referral agent with Deasy Penner Podley and conservation consultant, submitting structures for landmark protection.

Lamprecht sat down with Arroyo Monthly to talk about the midcentury modern master, his work in Pasadena and the ceaseless struggle to stave off the wrecking ball.

Arroyo: Returning from World War I, one of  Neutra’s first jobs was as assistant to pioneering landscape architect Gustav Ammann in Vienna.

Lamprecht: Ammann was in the forefront of modernist landscape architectural theory. Neutra always seems to be in the right place at the right time, meeting Mies van der Rohe and being invited to speak at the Bauhaus in 1930, or growing up in Vienna where he was introduced to Gustav Klimt and Arnold Schoenberg. So, Neutra’s first job with Ammann put him in contact with great figures in landscape architectural history in Germany. These people were investigating why we should use certain kinds of plants rather than others, establishing a theoretical basis for landscape design. You had the idea that gardens were for people, not just the aristocracy, not just the landed gentry.

What were some of the aesthetic principles they were grappling with?

He based his ideas about why human beings needed [to live amid] landscape and nature on evolutionary biology, the new discipline that suggested that we evolved on the plains of East Africa. That meant that in our visual field would have been bodies of water and savannas and the horizon lines, groups of trees — our DNA, our genetic ancestry, had evolved in order to accommodate that. Because it was ingrained in our DNA, because it was part of our genetic ancestry, it behooved contemporary human beings to create that same kind of quality in our environment.

How does the 1955 Perkins House here in Pasadena reflect where he was in his practice at the time?

Throughout the entire spectrum of his work, there is a move away from what was called the International Style, which is what you see at Lovell Health House and the Strathmore Apartments [in Westwood], into a more relaxed expression of lines and planes and pavilions with walls of glass. You see less of the white boxy volumes and more natural materials. That’s why the 1950s is called Neutra’s golden era.

He designed the house to the specifications of Occidental College art scholar Connie Perkins, didn’t he?

You asked a client all kinds of questions. You learned about their lives, you learned about what made them tick. You didn’t impose architecture on people. Neutra had designed a discreet bedroom for her in the north end of the house, but she preferred to sleep facing the view. So, where she worked — her office, her desk, her bed — that could be sealed off from the living room. It was an open plan house.

It’s Neutra’s golden era, but it’s also very much in keeping with what has come before.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s old dictum of breaking a box — a Victorian house is very much a solid box, a clearly defined volume, vertically oriented. But if you take that cardboard box and start taking it apart and making it a series of interlocking planes, rather than a big fat volume, you get a different experience of living. When you look at the Perkins House, that is a series of lines and planes that engage
the hill. It’s incredibly graceful and really exploits the incredible view that she enjoyed every day. And she and Neutra designed the pool that goes inside and outside; they designed that jointly and it was
her idea.

At Pasadena’s Clark House, built for a musician and a teacher in 1957, landscape architect Isamu Watanabe did the grounds.

Neutra had a great affinity for Japanese architecture and landscape design and was deeply informed on his own sensibility based on his trip to Japan. In a forward to a book on Japanese architecture, he said when he came to Japan in 1930 he felt as though he was coming home. It confirmed a lot of his ideas about the landscape. For example, with Neutra’s entrances to his houses, they’re sort of zigzag paths to his front door. He designed it in such a way that the body slows down to make the transition from your public persona to your domestic, private self.

As highly regarded and well known as he is, Neutra’s structures continue to be in danger. Why is that?

I was pretty involved in nominating a lot of houses for historic designation. The Kuhns House [in Woodland Hills] is now being evaluated by the City of Los Angeles. I just submitted the application for nomination. We’re going ahead with nominating the Miller House in Palm Springs and the Kelton Apartments that Neutra designed in Westwood in 1941. The Strathmore Apartments were designated a few years ago. That’s a good means of protection, but it doesn’t protect against demolition.

Is that the biggest threat? What is the biggest threat facing these buildings?

A lot of people don’t fully understand modern architecture. And they’re in great danger of being altered in ways that are incompatible with the building. And that’s why a new owner should typically take their time and understand a Neutra house and understand how incredibly rare they are. It’s very difficult to find a Neutra house that hasn’t been altered in ways that are not sympathetic.

Any accounts of what Neutra was like on a personal level?

I think he was probably far more thoughtful and intelligent than people gave him credit for. He could be charming one moment and sometimes very, very emotionally needy for recognition the next. But his ideas — he really mesmerized people. He was so knowledgeable about so many areas. He would be on a first-name basis with prophets of the Old Testament. He knew Greek philosophers and Greek mythology. Wherever he traveled in the world, he appreciated the culture and the people.

And well-roundedness presumably helped him pitch what were radical ideas at the time.

A lot of his thinking is based in neural science, physiological psychology, evolutionary biology. He wasn’t looking at architectural magazines. He was looking at other kinds of sources and thinking about how to better humanity no matter what the income strata.

What would he think of the super-wealthy who today occupy houses he designed for people of more modest means?

He had very wealthy clients too; he had Anna Sten, John Nicholas Brown, Philip Lovell, they are people with a lot of money. But you find the same materials and fixtures in the houses for the wealthy as you do in the houses for the migrant workers.

What would he say about affordable housing today?

I think he would be appalled at how we don’t have affordable housing, because that was a passion in the ’20s, the ’30s. In 1932, he was part of an exhibition on public housing in Vienna. He designed housing for migrant workers out of food crates, but [it was] never built. That was his passion. I don’t think he would mind a celebrity buying his house. But what he would have minded is our total lack of compassion for those less fortunate and the way that we’ve allowed houses to become unaffordable for most of us.