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Neutra + notes

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Vanishing Act. The New Yorker, Sept. 27, 2021.

As the pandemic wore on, I was casting around for a project to pursue in and around Los Angeles. My sage editor, Daniel Zalewski, steered me in the direction of the architect Richard Neutra, whose story I had been exploring as I delved into the German-speaking émigré world in L.A. The project ended up becoming a spring- and summer-devouring obsession, as I looked at around three hundred buildings from the outside and toured around fifty of them— not only the work of Neutra but also that of Rudolph Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright, Irving Gill, J. R. Davidson, Gregory Ain, Raphael Soriano, Harwell Hamilton Harris, and various others. Although I could make use of only a fraction of what I saw, the entire adventure proved richly rewarding — a deeper education in this vast, mysterious metropolis. Following my accustomed practice, I here offer an interminable and unreadable addendum to the published piece, together with heartfelt acknowledgments to the many people who helped me with the research. Piles of reading aside, the heart of the piece turned out to be my encounters with the original Neutra owners, of whom there are, I believe, no fewer than eight — although I never heard back from two of them.

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Because so much of Neutra’s work took the form of private residences, it’s not so easy to see the best of it. The first stop for any LA-modernist tourist should be the Neutra VDL House, overlooking Silver Lake Reservoir. It recently reopened for tours. It’s not a typical Neutra house by any means; the initial design was done in the early thirties, when Neutra was in his hardcore modernist phase, and it was then extensively redesigned after the original building burned in the 1963, with Neutra’s son Dion having a considerable hand in the proceedings. If you walk just a little ways south on Silver Lake Boulevard, you can see the great cluster of houses that make up the Neutra Colony. These are the four houses south of Earl St., one house on the north side, and four houses on Neutra Place, just up the hill. You can easily combine such a visit with a walk around the hills just east of the reservoir, where there’s a splendid display of R.M. Schindler houses and some choice examples of work by Ain, Harris, and John Lautner (whose Silvertop house crowns the ridge). Here’s a Schindler walking tour for their Silver Lake area.

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Back in June, I wrote an online piece about the pioneering gay-rights activist Harry Hay, the composer John Cage, and the old radical bohemian community of Silver Lake. That piece was a direct offshoot of my Neutra meanderings — I had noticed that the Mattachine Steps, leading up to Hay’s historic house, are right next to the Neutra Colony. As it happens, Hay commissioned Gregory Ain to build a house for his mother, Margaret Hay, which is in the area of the Cahuenga Pass. Ain was a fascinating figure who began as a Neutra disciple but became bitterly disenchanted with the man. Closely aligned with radical circles, Ain designed houses with the explicit intention of foiling surveillance from the street. The clerestory windows at the Urcel Daniel House are high horizontal slits, so that the structure takes on the look of a machine-gun bunker — albeit one that opens up dramatically on the inside. Daniel,  the secretary of the Los Angeles Newspaper Guild and a Communist Party member, later felt compelled to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. One of those she named was William E. Oliver, who lived in a Schindler house just down Micheltorena Street. Oliver, a drama and movie critic who co-founded the guild, stood fast against H.U.A.C. questioning in 1953. His daughter Noel Osheroff still owns the house; she and Frank Gehry were the only people I met who had memories of Schindler. Osheroff told me that Schindler struck her as being rather shy — contrary to his rakish reputation.

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The other essential tourist destination is the 1922 Schindler house on Kings Road, which has been preserved thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Schindler House. Programming at the house is run by the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, LA, an outpost of the Museum for Applied Arts in Vienna. Beyond that, you can spend days driving around looking at modernist houses in the area of Los Angeles. Some of them aren’t visible from the street, and of course no one should spend much time gawking at private residences. But a quick pass on foot or in a car does no harm. The indispensable guide is David Gebhard and Robert Winter’s An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles, the sixth edition of which is available from Angel City Press.

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My chief guide, in print and in person, was the architectural historian Thomas S. Hines, long based at UCLA. His Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture remains the fullest account of Neutra’s life and work. Barbara Lamprecht’s colossal volume Richard Neutra: Complete Works can be seen on sturdy coffee tables in many Neutra homes; it occupies the place of honor in Ann Brown’s house in Washington, DC. Lamprecht also has an excellent short overview, Richard Neutra (Taschen). I read most of Neutra’s published writings: Survival Through Design, Life and Shape, Life and Human Habitat, World and Dwelling, Mystery and Realities of the Site, Nature Near, and his first book, Wie baut Amerika?, which devotes many pages to Schindler’s Pueblo Ribera complex in La Jolla. I also consulted Arthur Drexler and Hines’s The Architecture of Richard Neutra: From International Style to California Modern, Volker M. Welter’s Tremaine Houses: One Family’s Patronage of Domestic Architecture in Midcentury America, Dietrich Neuman’s Richard Neutra’s Windshield House, and Stephen Leet’s Richard Neutra’s Miller House. Barbara Bestor’s Bohemian Modern, a contemporary architect’s ode to Silver Lake, helped me find several hospitable owners; David Schreyer and Andreas Nierhaus’s Los Angeles Modernism Revisited is somewhat in the same vein. Raymond Neutra, the architect’s sole surviving son, sent me an unpublished article titled “The Subtle Secrets of a Neutra Design,” in which he discusses the making of the Ohara House with his father’s collaborator John Blanton.

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I spent quite a bit of time studying the work of Schindler, without whom Neutra’s story cannot be told. (David Coffey, who owns a 1930s-era Neutra house in Bakersfield, told me, “You’re either a Schindler person or a Neutra person — you have to choose.”) I read Robert Sweeney and Judith Sheine’s Schindler, Kings Road, and Southern California Modernism, Judith Sheine’s R. M. Schindler, Lionel March and Judith Sheine’s RM Schindler: Composition and Construction, Elizabeth Smith and Michael Darling’s The Architecture of R. M. Schindler, David Gebhard’s Schindler, and Mitch Glazer’s hugely entertaining 1999 Vanity Fair article, “Genius and Jealousy.” Two other big books by Hines were indispensable: Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism 1900-1970 and Irving Gill and the Architecture of Reform. For other architects who played prominent roles in Neutra’s story, I read Robert Sweeney’s Wright in Hollywood, Kathryn Smith’s Frank Lloyd Wright, Hollyhock House, and Olive Hill: Buildings and Projects for Aline Barnsdall, Anthony Denzer’s Gregory Ain: The Modern Home as Social Commentary, and Wolfgang Wagener’s Raphael Soriano. Julius Shulman’s Architecture and Its Planning is full of striking insights. I consulted three books by the critic Esther McCoy, who knew both Neutra and Schindler: Five California Architects, Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader, and Vienna to Los Angeles: Two Journeys — the last a collection of Neutra-Schindler correspondence that is framed by a decided anti-Neutra bias. I also relished the pyrotechnic architectural writings of the British critic Reyner Banham: Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, A Concrete Atlantis, the collection A Critic Writes, and, a personal favorite, Scenes in America Deserta. 

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There’s a small boom in scholarly studies of Neutra and architects of his generation. I garnered many insights from Beatriz Colomina’s X-Ray Architecture, Sylvia Lavin’s Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture, and two books by Alice T. Friedman: Women and the Making of the Modern Home and American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture. An important study by Todd Cronan is forthcoming. I also read Matthias Brunner’s “Richard Neutra’s Ambiguous Relationship to Luxury,” Arts 75 (2018); Simon Niedenthal’s “‘Glamourized Houses’: Neutra, Photography, and the Kaufmann House,” Journal of Architectural Education 47:2 (1993), pp. 101-112; Brett Tippey’s “Richard Neutra’s Search for the Southland: California, Latin America and Spain,” Architectural History 59 (2016), pp. 311-52; and Barbara Lamprecht’s “The Landscape Architect Cannot Come Later!” Richard Neutra’s Faith in Landscape,” Eden 23:4 (2020), pp. 4-31. Gary Marmorstein’s “Steel and Slurry: Dr. Philip M. Lovell, Architectural Patron,” Southern California Quarterly 84 (3-4), pp. 241–70, is the chief source on the mesmerizing Dr. Lovell, who almost deserves a biography to himself. Incidentally, when I went to visit the restorer and architectural expert Josh Gorrell at the Lovell House —he’d been living there in a caretaker role, before the house’s recent sale to Manuela and Iwan Wirth —he mentioned that he’d listened to an interview in which Lovell talked about the “Nazi” who lived across the street. This came from Esther McCoy’s interview with Lovell, now in the Smithsonian archives. Some combing of newspaper archives yielded the information that for a couple of years Lovell’s neighbor at 4601 Dundee Drive had been Georg Gyssling, the not fully Nazi-aligned German consul in L.A. Even more strangely, in the same period the gay film director James Whale had been living just down the street at the Villa Sophia.

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For cultural and political background, I read Tom Sitton’s Los Angeles Transformed: Fletcher Bowron’s Urban Reform Revival, 1938-1953, Lyra Kilston’s Sun-Seekers, a trilogy of books by the suburban sage D. J. Waldie (Holy Land, Where We Are Now, Becoming Los Angeles), Emily Abel’s Tuberculosis and the Politics of Exclusion and Suffering in the Land of Sunshine, George Sanchez’s Boyle Heights: How a Los Angeles Neighborhood Became the Future of American Democracy, William Deverell’s Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past, William Alexander McClung’s Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles, Richard Cándida Smith’s Utopia and Dissent, Eric Avila’s Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight, Michael Webb’s Modernism Reborn,Norman and Dorothy Karasick’s The Oilman’s Daughter: A Biography of Aline Barnsdall, Paul Karlstrom’s On the Edge of America: California Modernist Art, 1900-1950, Michael Locke’s Silver Lake Chronicles, Ellen Hoobler, Mark Nelson, and William H. Sherman’s Hollywood Arensberg, Greg Hise’s Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis, Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics, Ken Bernstein’s Preserving Los Angeles, and Wim De Wit and Christopher James Alexander’s Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future 1940-1990. Carey McWilliams’s Southern California: An Island of the Land, from 1946, remains the best and most bracing book ever written about the region.

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The former Hughes Auto Showroom.

For the grim story of the Mexican American villages of La Loma, Palo Verde, and Bishop — partly obliterated to make room for Neutra and Robert Alexander’s Elysian Park Heights project, finally destroyed to make room for Dodger Stadium — I relied chiefly on Eric Nusbaum’s wrenching history Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between. I also read writings by the late Don Parson — his 2006 book Making a Better World: Public Housing, the Red Scare, and the Direction of Modern Los Angeles; his article Los Angeles’ ‘Headline-Happy Public Housing War,'” Southern California Quarterly 65:3 (1983), pp. 251-85; and the posthumous collection Public Los Angeles: A Private City’s Activist Futures — together with John H. M. Laslett’s Shameful Victory: The Los Angeles Dodgers, the Red Scare, and the Hidden History of Chavez Ravine and Thomas Hines’s essay “Housing, Baseball, and Creeping Socialism: The Battle of the Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles, 1949–1959,” Journal of Urban History (1982), pp. 123–43. Robert Alexander’s UCLA oral history, delivered to Lawrence Weschler, yielded striking comments. The LA City Archives supplied me with a copy of the minutes from the City Planning Commission meeting of April 26, 1951, a haunting document. The website Chavez Ravine: The Real Story gives a sense of what was lost; close study of the maps shows how you can walk through an area north of the stadium parking lots where remains of the old villages can be seen. Just last week, protesters took the field during a Dodgers game, carrying signs that said “La Loma,” “Palo Verde,” and “Bishop.”

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I’m very grateful to the following for their hospitality: Thom Andersen, Clara Balzary, Noah Baylin, John Bertram, John Brice, Ann Brown, David Coffey, Alberto Chehebar, Ruth Eliel and Bill Cooney, Susie Akai Fukuhara, Jocelyn Gibbs, Tom Hines, Elsa Hosk and Tom Daly, Catherine Jurca, the Leddy clan (Patricia Leddy, Claire Leddy, Michael Hackett, Richard Leddy), Dominic Mondavi, Laura Kuhns Moody and Scott Moody, David Netto, my sublime colleague Susan Orlean, Noel Osheroff, Andrew Romano (read his account of his gorgeous Schindler home), Sharon Salinger, Larry Schaffer and Magdalena Sikorska, Susan Sorrells, Elizabeth Timme and Hank Harris, Spencer Velazquez, and, above all, the magnificent Thelma Lager Huebsch and her children Hilary Cohen and Mark Huebsch. Much thanks also to Dana Balkin, Barbara Bestor, Gerard Bisignano (for showing me the Kaufmann House), Abbey Brach and Kevin Jew (for giving me a tour of the superbly renovated Hollyhock House and the under-renovation Residence A), Elissa Brown (for letting me see her documentary about the Windshield House), Paddy Calistro at Angel City Press, Michele Ciaccio and Emily Park at the Getty Institute (who supplied me with recordings of Tom Hines’s Neutra-related interviews), Darrel Cowan, Todd Cronan, Bill Deverell, Crosby Doe, the staff of UCLA Special Collections (Simon Elliott, Courtney Jacobs, Molly Haigh, Neil Hodge), Sasha Frere-Jones (for supplying a Flea connection), Valentina Ganeva (whose Schindler documentary will be worth seeing), Frank Gehry, Paul Goldberger, Josh Gorrell, Jia Yi Gu at the MAK Center, Chris Hawthorne (who honored me by inviting me to be part of his Civic Memory Working Group), Michael Holland at the LA City Archives, Mary Jo Holmes, Gabriel Kahane (composer of the best Neutra song), Barbara Lamprecht, PJ Letofsky (for letting me see his Neutra documentary), Raymond Neutra (visit the website of the Institute for Survival through Design for Neutra’s ideas about environmental implications of his father’s work), Becky Nicolaides, Eric Nusbaum, Oscar A. Ramirez, Noam Saragosti at the Neutra VDL House, Andrea Schwan on behalf of Hauser & Wirth, and Ryan Soniat. Deepest thanks, finally, to Daniel Zalewski, copy-editor Andrew Boynton, and fact-checkers Anna Boots and Alex Brady.

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