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05.27.2009
Artistry on the Line
Richard Neutra, Architect: Sketches and Drawings at the LA Central Library
The Heller House, Beverly Hills (1950)
All images courtesy Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

The exhibition of Richard Neutra’s drawings at the LA Central Library adds another dimension to the meticulously composed images (most by Julius Shulman) that we’ve seen time and again. Here is the man behind the work, and the preparatory studies that fed into familiar buildings. An idealized self-portrait in charcoal is juxtaposed with the utopian vision of Rush City Reformed. Luxuriant plantings soften the rigorous geometry of the houses. A spiral parking structure Neutra sketched for Frank Lloyd Wright in 1924 draws on the curvilinear forms of Eric Mendelsohn, with whom the fledgling architect worked in Berlin, and it anticipates the rounded bays of houses he would build in LA. Curator Thomas Hines, author of the definitive Neutra monograph, has made an inspired selection from the UCLA archives to portray an architect who was also a gifted artist and a modernist with a strong romantic streak.

Universal Pictures Building, Los Angeles (1932-33)

Christmas, 29 Palms (1938)
 
 

Handsomely installed and thoughtfully explained, the drawings are arranged chronologically to trace Neutra’s career, from his early years in Europe through his 45-year practice in LA. They are also grouped by theme, to show how skilled he was in capturing the spirit of places he explored, natural forms, and the context in which he built. It’s fascinating to jump from the hothouse world of Vienna, where he mingled with such giants as Gustav Klimt, Arnold Schoenberg, and Sigmund Freud, to the tabula rasa of the American southwest. That was the fulfillment of Neutra’s dream, in the bleak aftermath of World War I, to escape the winters of northern Europe and live on an idyllic tropical island.

Adolf Loos turned the young man away from ornament and traditional architectural forms, and his earliest architectural drawing—a house for an estate in Berlin—has the same purity of line as his last. In contrast to R.M. Schindler, who constantly reinvented himself, Neutra was rigorously consistent. There are fascinating glimpses of unrealized projects, including an austere gym deftly linked to a Spanish-style villa in Santa Monica, a rooftop solarium composed of glass louvers for his VDL house in Silverlake, and the competition entry he developed with Schindler in 1926 for the League of Nations Headquarters in Geneva. The sketches show how comfortable he was with the language of Mendelsohn and Wright, and how quickly he found his own voice in the Lovell Health House, a timeless icon in the Hollywood Hills. They also reveal his importance as an innovator, pioneering prefabrication and novel systems of on-site construction, as well as developing new models for schools and affordable housing.

This exhibition is a layered artifact of extraordinary significance. It puts an archival collection on view in the most democratic forum in LA, at the heart of downtown. It illuminates the creative process and the multiple skills of an architect who, like so many other talented immigrants from Europe, enriched a provincial outpost. And there’s a poignancy in seeing how little of this vision realized. Though Neutra was prolific beyond the dreams of today’s architects, completing about 300 houses in addition to commercial and public buildings as far afield as Cuba, Frankfurt, and Karachi, he was repeatedly foiled by philistines and know-nothings, whose successors still have a decisive voice in the shaping of LA. Parents disparaged his model schools as “factories,” and the Elysian Heights housing development was condemned as “creeping socialism” during the red-baiting hysteria of the early 1950s.

League of Nations Headquarters, Geneva, with R.M. Schindler (1926)

And yet, we should be grateful for what was achieved, on paper as well as on the ground. Besides organizing three symposia, LAPL exhibitions director Gloria Gerace commissioned an innovative audio guide. Ray Kappe remembers the sliding glass wall in a Neutra classroom where he studied at age 13. Actress Kelly Lynch speaks of the unpretentious simplicity and livability of the Oyler house in Lone Pine, which she and husband Mitch Glazer restored. Leo Marmol and other Neutra specialists describe their close encounters. You can listen to these tributes by dialing 213-455-2927. It’s a great way to build anticipation for the exhibition itself.

Michael Webb

Michael Webb, a writer on architecture, lives in a classic Neutra apartment.