AN contributor Michael Webb not only writes about Modernism, but he lives it: for the last 31 years he has resided in one of the units in Richard Neutra’s Strathmore Apartments in Westwood. According to Webb, developer Landventures is proposing to build a five-story block directly across the street from the Neutra apartments, which would block light and views, aggravate the noise and congestion on a heavily trafficked street, and “degrade an architectural masterpiece.” He and other residents are encouraging people to attend tommorow night’s hearing of the Westwood Community Design Review Board (7pm in the community room A of the Westside Pavilion at Pico and Westwood) to oppose the project. To see what the apartments mean to Webb, check out this essay he wrote about his unit a few years ago:
I live in an apartment that feels like a tree house on a hilltop just north of Westwood Village, two blocks from UCLA. I moved in 27 years ago, drawn here by the timeless beauty of a modern complex that was built in the year I was born—1937. The architect was Richard Neutra, an Austrian immigrant who settled in LA in 1925, quickly won acclaim for the Lovell Health house in the Hollywood Hills, and went on to design 300 modern houses in his 45-year career. Here, he borrowed his ground plan from the traditional bungalow court—a hollow square with an axial path leading through—but placed it on a steep slope with steps in place of a walkway and eight apartments climbing the hillside. Early photos show it as a white cubist sculpture standing alone; the trees that would shield and soften it came later.
It proved a tough sell, so Neutra was delighted when Luise Rainer—another Austrian immigrant, who had won two Best Actress Oscars back-to-back—moved into what is now my apartment. She had separated from her husband, Clifford Odets, and was probably trying to elude her fans. In a letter to the architect she explained that she had always thought of modernism as being cold and unfriendly, but now felt a great sense of serenity. Orson Welles, newly arrived from New York, briefly lived across the way with Dolores del Rio, and Fritz Lang is reputed to have installed his mistress in a third apartment. However, the friendly ghosts in mine are those of Charles and Ray Eames, the designers who met at the Cranbrook School of Art, drove to LA in 1941 to pursue their careers undisturbed, and lived here until they built their own house in Pacific Palisades, eight years later. Ray Eames, writing in Mademoiselle, declared: “We live in the most modern house in LA.”
For the Eameses, the airy hilltop apartment was a retreat as well as their first workshop, “offering moments of calm and rest and pleasure at the beginning and end of each day,” as Ray wrote. Neutra had provided “a beautifully clean and simple shell [that] imposes no style on the tenants, but leaves them free to create their own surroundings through color, texture, use of area and equipment needed for everyday life and activities.”
I inherited a blank canvas and, having little to spend and no certainty I would stay, I camped out with a minimum of furnishings for the first 15 years, leaving doors and windows open through most of the year. The good proportions and abundant natural light were a blessed release from the claustrophobia of an old dark house that my ex wife had chosen in Washington DC. Then came the big quake of 1994, which spared the apartment and spurred me to celebrate the different traditions of modernity it stood for.
With the encouragement of friendly professionals, and the participation of talented artisans, I’ve fleshed out the spaces as a tribute to the cool geometry of Neutra and the organic rigor of the Eameses. The goal was to foster a dialogue—enriched by personal memories and enthusiasms—between those giants, weaving together metal and wood, angles and curves, plain and colored surfaces. White stucco walls, ribbon windows with silver trim and a wood-strip floor provide the frame. To avert cabin fever–I often spend entire days at a time in this 1000-square-foot apartment when there’s a book to be finished–I wanted each space to have a distinct character.
My bedroom is a homage to De Stijl, the Dutch modernists of the 1920s who enlivened their cubist compositions with primary red, yellow and blue, plus black, gray, and white. Everything in the room is in one of those tones and I felt justified in doing this because Neutra himself used iridescent blue tiles in one of the bathrooms. Waking, I feel I’m in a golden cornfield, with a clear blue sky above, and a comforting red glow behind me. The bed, Eames couch, and chest are black and a Navajo rug adds a splash of scarlet. The chest was designed by architect Lorcan O’Herlihy as a Constructivist composition of cantilevered drawers, some faced with woven steel mesh. Tom Farrage, a skilled metalworker, made the chandelier—a brushed aluminum disc like a full moon, with branching arms that spotlight witty artworks by Saul Steinberg, Claes Oldenberg, and a photographer friend, Jenny Okun. Ingo Maurer’s Don Quixote lamp sits atop a Saarinen side table; a deliberate contrast of klutzy and sleek forms.
I spend most of my time in the office—the Eameses’ workroom, where they kept their “Kazam” press and boarded Gregory Ain—so I’ve made it as serene and functional as I could. A broad ash ply worktop wraps around two sides of the room, supported on filing cabinets in the Cherokee red that Wright popularized, and industrial-grade Douglas fir plywood shelves, made by Jim Matranga, Frank Gehry’s favorite carpenter, complete the circuit. The stucco is painted celadon, the ceiling a shade lighter than the walls, complementing the charcoal gray sisal carpeting, two chairs–the Aeron and Gehry’s CrossCheck–and wood Venetian blinds. A row of turned wood bowls occupy the raised glass top of stepped bookshelves, and there’s a forcola (goldola rowlock) hand-carved in Venice by one of the last surviving craftsmen, and a fragment of beeswaxed paneling from an early English Tudor house—a crude provincial copy of a Renaissance model. Also, three vintage photos: Mark Shaw’s shot of the Kennedy’s sailing off Hyannisport in the election summer of 1960, Horst’s surrealist study of a Balmain hat taken in Paris in 1938, and Andreas Feininger’s 1942 view of mid Manhattan, taken from the Jersey palisades with a telephoto lens that flattens six blocks of backlit towers, giving the city the ethereal air of a Japanese ink wash painting. As in the bedroom, there’s a deliberately jarring juxtaposition: Maurer’s whimsical Mozzkito table lamp and Sapper’s rigorous flat screen IBM computer. Handcarved Finnish birch birds dangle from a ceiling light.
Black and white vintage photos are a passion I’ve had to curb for lack of wall space. I still believe with Mies that “less is more”—though I’m always willing to consider one more treasure. The hall leading past the kitchen (Neutra’s floor plan is as traditional as his exterior is modern) is hung with shots of Paris in the 1950s, culminating in a classic image by Melvin Sokolsky of a fashion model appearing to float in a plexi bubble on the Seine. In the living room, everything is sensuously rounded—from the molded plywood frames of the Eames and Aalto lounge chairs and a tubular metal sofa by Gilbert Rhode, to the truncated glass oval of the dining table, and the sexy Philippe Starck side chairs.
The living room is my laboratory, a place to mix elements and see what the chemical reactions may be, and a place to show off favorite things. A hand-tufted Chinese silk rug, designed by two young Americans in an abstracted wood-grain pattern, is echoed in the wire base of a Warren Platner coffee table and a bamboo sculpture of torqued curves by Syoryu Honda. Bamboo pieces by Kenichi Nagakura—one inspired by a bird’s nest, another by a Henry Moore draped figure—complement the Honda. (A third is pinned to the bathroom wall). Two sculptural paper lamps by Ingo Maurer cast their reflections in Nolli’s map of Rome with its labyrinth of streets and squares. A Richard Serra etching, as violent as an explosion of molten lava, arches over a curvilinear drinks trolley with glass shelves and a goatskin-covered frame that was made in Italy around 1950. An Australian aboriginal painting—a stylized map of white dots—is displayed against a black Eames screen, and the Eameses’ leg splint—mocked up in this apartment in 1942—hangs over the entrance. Finnish glass, metal sculptures, framed photos of Rainer and the Eameses in this apartment, along with fragments of celebrated buildings sit atop wall-mounted book shelves of glass and black-laquered wood.
Sixty four steps lead up to my front door, dense foliage shuts out the street noise, and my desk is a few steps from my bed. So it’s tempting to live the life of a recluse, surrounded by books and art, enjoying the play of sunlight through the day, and writing without distractions. For most of the year I can sit out on the narrow terrace among the tree tops. Sitting there, I reflect on how Neutra’s machine has been swallowed up by its garden, and how the house that was new when the Eameses moved in has become one of LA’s youngest Historic-Cultural Monuments.