by John JervisMar 27, 2020
Modernist architect Richard Neutra (1892–1970) grew up in Vienna where he received his education at the Vienna University of Technology from 1910 to 1918. For three of those years, he served as a lieutenant in the Austrian army during World War I. He admired the work and writings of Otto Wagner and attended lectures by Adolf Loos. At the university, he befriended Rudolph Schindler who was five years his senior. After graduation, Neutra briefly worked with the landscape architect Gustav Amman in Switzerland and then as chief draftsman with Eric Mendelsohn in Berlin before emigrating to the United States in 1923 at the invitation of Schindler who came to the U.S. in 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I.
In America, before settling in Los Angeles where he would ultimately build his celebrated career, he started by working at Holabird and Roche in Chicago and briefly apprenticed at Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin East in Wisconsin. From 1925 to 1930 Neutra’s family and the Schindlers lived in the adjacent apartments in Rudolph Schindler-designed two-apartment house on Kings Road in Los Angeles. The house is known as the Schindler House. Since the mid-90s the property has been operated by the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna as the MAK Center for Art and Architecture. The two architects collaborated on a number of projects, including a 40-unit reinforced concrete Jardinette Apartments in Hollywood, built in 1928. Dr. Philip Lovell, who had built several structures with Schindler, asked Neutra to design Leah Lovell’s progressive school, the Lovell Health House, Neutra’s first independent building, completed in 1929.
In 1932 Neutra’s work was featured in Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s International Style exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Neutra’s practice focused on designing single-family houses to enhance well-being and health. Neutra paid particular attention to low-cost construction and innovative prefabrication techniques and attracted both progressive clients and talented young architects who apprenticed at the office in the early 1930s. Among those who went on to independent success were Gregory Ain, Harwell Hamilton Harris, and Raphael Soriano. During World War II, Neutra developed prototype school buildings in Puerto Rico and various schools and universities in California. From 1949 to 1958 he worked in partnership with Robert Alexander with whom they designed larger commercial and institutional buildings, including a new embassy in Karachi, Pakistan, built in 1959.
Richard Neutra founded the Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design in 1962. It was named after his 1953 book Survival Through Design which addressed well-researched designs that served humanity and the planet. When the architect died, his son Dion, also an architect, took over both the institute and his father’s practice. The institute then became more about preserving Neutra’s legacy. In 2019, after Dion passed away, his youngest brother, Raymond, a medical researcher and epidemiologist, took over the institute. In the following interview with Raymond Neutra, he discussed his experience of living in the VDL House and its key design features, the history of his family, his mother’s role, and his father being a fountain of ideas, yet an unlikely prototype for The Fountainhead.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Let’s start with the VDL House overlooking Silver Lake where you grew up. What are some of your memories of it?
Raymond Neutra: I was born in 1939 in the VDL House, in the back wing which was built that year. The house sits on a tight 60 by 70-foot lot that accommodated our family, my father’s office, and two renters—a family with a child and a lady who shared her bathroom with the drafting room. Over time there were a series of apprentices who also lived there, including Eric Schneider-Wessling, a German architect with a subsequent distinguished career.
VB: He stayed with your family in exchange for his salary, right?
RN: Only for a short while. Once he proved himself, he started getting his salary. [Laughs.] Overall, the house has 12 exits. People could be there without interfering with each other. I grew up wandering through the drafting room. I eavesdrop on clients' conferences in the living room upstairs at night. I helped Julius Shulman to photograph it. I met many of my father’s friends there and I gave many visitor tours.
VB: Why did your father call the VDL House a research house?
RN: So many of my memories have to do with the opening and closing of many devices that connected outside to the inside. Lighting was another focus of research, specifically, a line of lights behind frosted glass on the underside of an overhang that would illuminate the tops of the bushes on the second floor and also keep the bugs away. Then there were all kinds of experimental materials such as waxed masonite as surfacing or the foundation that incorporated prefabricated concrete joists over which the concrete slab was poured. Many devices were advertised in magazines by different trades. That’s how he promoted the way of building. He saw architecture as a clever assemblage of already existing products that you could order in catalogs.
The house was always about research. Even after the 1963 fire, which destroyed much of the original structure, my father and brother took the opportunity to correct or improve many spaces and details. For example, in the later version, all rooms have access to the outdoors which did not happen in the original house. The roof deck used to be accessed only by climbing a ladder through a hatch and there was no sun protection. Later an enclosure was built with a water feature and a convenient folding stair. The roof became one of everyone’s favourite places in the house. Then an elevator was added, which was kind of illegal and hidden in a series of closets. A number of operable windows were replaced with fixed panes in response to noise and air conditioning control.
VB: The house was full of connections, unusual layouts, glazed corners, sliding doors that turned indoors into outdoors, and beautiful gardens and terraces. Apart from the roof, do you have a favorite space in the house?
RN: There is a tiny bedroom that reminded me of an airstream travel trailer with a full-height glass wall with a door that looks upon a little water pond on its terrace. Inside the room, every inch is thought out like a ship's cabin. It reflects what my father loved to do—to design tiny rooms that would feel spacious. On occasions, the room served as my own bedroom. However, I slept in many rooms, depending on different scenarios that had to accommodate ever-changing plans.
VB: Could you talk about your immediate family—your mother, Dione, and two older brothers, Frank and Dion?
RN: Both of my parents came from atypical families. My mother who was eight years younger than my father was born in Munich but grew up in Zurich where her father, Alfred Niedermann, was from. He was an electrical engineer, and his father was a wood engraver, a painter, a poet, a novelist, and a largely self-educated man. Music was a big part of their family; my mother played piano and cello. Although originally of Protestant and Catholic background, they were free thinkers. The Neutras, a Jewish family, came from a town called Nitra in Slovakia. My great-grandfather was a public health physician near the border of Hungary and Romania. He and his wife died in a Typhoid epidemic and my orphaned grandfather, Samuel Neutra, was taken in by Viennese relatives and apprenticed as a machinist. He ultimately owned a small foundry and made sure that his four children got higher education. Like me, my father was much younger than his siblings.
My oldest brother Frank was born in Germany shortly before my mother joined my father in Taliesin East. He was what today would be called, autistic. When he was little, my parents took him to Sigmund Freud who said that it would be good for him to stay in the house until his teenage years but it would be difficult for him to continue to live with the family due to his temper tantrums which were beyond his control. He ultimately stayed with us until he was 18. He then lived in a special institution and for the last years of his life, he stayed with a Filipino family who cared for several people in similar conditions. By the time I was ten my brother Dion was already in the military and then studied architecture at ETH in Zurich and at the University of Southern California. He lived one block down the street from the VDL House at the Reunion House built by my father in 1949. Dion worked with my father’s office. He continued his practice after my father passed away in 1970. Dion died in 2019.
VB: You just mentioned Sigmund Freud. I understand that the connection was established through Freud’s son, Ernst who was your father’s classmate at the university in Vienna and a close friend. He also became an architect and after the Nazis came to power built his career in London.
RN: That’s true. They travelled to Italy together in their student days. After World War I, Ernst helped my father with obtaining work in Berlin. And after he moved to London my parents visited him when they traveled.
VB: Your father grew up in Vienna in a wealthy Jewish family. He studied at the Vienna University of Technology from 1910 to 1918. Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos were important in his education. And Rudolph Schindler was a few years older, but they knew each other from student days, right?
RN: He did not study under Wagner, but Schindler worked at Wagner’s office and my father and Schindler attended lectures and evening seminars by Loos, which were somewhat informal, and he would even meet Loos to see what he was doing. So, there was no personal connection to Wagner but as a kid, my father was fond of his buildings in Vienna, especially the famous Postal Savings Bank and metro stations. Wagner was for sure a hero to my dad.
VB: Your parents came to the U.S. in 1923, exactly 100 years ago. Was it your father’s idea?
RN: Oh, for sure. He wanted to come to work with Frank Lloyd Wright and meet Louis Sullivan back in 1913. But then he was caught in World War I. Schindler was able to come just before that. After the war, coming to America was impossible for Austrians until 1922 due to the strict punitive measures under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. My father came to the U.S. with the help of Quakers. They arranged his visa in 1923. But my mother came separately, later that year already after Frank, who was named after Wright, was born. He stayed in Germany with her parents until my parents settled. My maternal grandmother brought Frank to Taliesin in 1924.
VB: You have said that your mother was attracted by your father’s sense of mission. She played a very important role in his career and even became his secretary, right?
RN: That’s right. She bought a typewriter to type a transcript for one of my father’s books. He would speculate and talk his ideas aloud, and she was always fascinated to hear that. She helped him strategise when it came to making major decisions. She was the one who did all the communications with the architectural magazines. She filed all the Shulman photographs and corresponded with editors in France, Italy, Mexico, Uruguay, and so on. So, she was his publicist as well.
VB: Why did Gerard van der Leeuw, a wealthy Dutch industrialist and architecture aficionado, agree to give your father a no-interest loan to build the VDL House, which was, of course, named after him as a gratitude for his generosity?
RN: Van der Leeuw was a big fan of my father. He read his books and invited him to lecture in Holland where he met Gerrit Rietveld, Leendert van der Vlugt, and other Dutch modernists. Soon after, van der Leeuw came to Los Angeles with his own lectures on ethical labor relations and the design of factories. That’s when my father was showing him his buildings here. Van der Leeuw agreed with my father that so much more was possible to achieve in America, especially the idea of architecture as an assembly of mass-produced pieces. My father then just completed the Lovell Health House. Van der Leeuw was touched by how energetic my father was. Dad was full of ideas and they just hit it off. He was, of course, also surprised that my father did not have a house of his own. So, out of the goodness of his heart, he pulled his checkbook and asked, “How much do you need?” [Laughs.] And he didn’t want the house to be named after him. That’s why it is coded VDL House. Around 1948 my father finally paid that loan but van der Leeuw said, “Don’t give it to me, donate it to my favorite foundation.”
VB: A novelist Ayn Rand was the second owner of your father’s Von Sternberg House in Los Angeles. She lived there with her husband from 1943 to 1951. It is assumed that she based her Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, which was published the year she moved into that house, at least partially on your father’s character. Did they ever meet?
RN: They did, I think, just once. Although, I believe it was after 1943. But I don’t think Howard Roark was mostly modeled on my father. I think it was much closer to Frank Lloyd Wright than my father. [Laughs.]
VB: What do you remember most about your father?
RN: He was a fountain of ideas. He was always interesting and original and not stereotyped. His curiosity about what people do, how they socialise, and what makes them healthy stimulated him to design from the inside out and to design everything from furniture to city plans. He was a very humorous guy and a tremendously good salesman. [Laughs.] I have very warm feelings for him.