Neutra VDL's new director Sarah Lorenzen called me up and asked if I could help stop the incredible decay of an architectural treasure, Richard Neutra’s own residence called VDL Research House, named after Dutch philanthropist Dr CH Van Der Leeuw, who loaned the initial money to Neutra to build his own house in Silver Lake, California, the year was 1932.
I said I would love to help if I could unleash my trebuchet on the high-end modernism freaks, buying and selling mid century wannabe estates without knowing where it all came from and what it advocated.
We met on a rainy day at the house, with gray skies making the place look particularly in need of help as she and group of her students from Cal Poly, Pomona architecture department were giving tours for ten dollars per person to pay up some immediate bills for the house that were due.
The Point of Urgency;
I have been looking for a causeful piece of architecture to write about.
Architects near and far have been sending me pictures and links to their business web sites, announcing that their new project arrived with green media room, green his and her baths, and green gourmet kitchen, offering me the exclusive coverage for it in black ink.
To be honest, most of the time I have to resort to saying, “Great project, thank you for sharing, but I am more interested in writing about buildings, which are open for public use and education.”
Nice way of saying, I don’t want to.
VDL Research House particularly fits my description of a building I want to write about. Besides being the architect’s own residence, this is an experimental live-work house ahead of computer age, a place resonating with story after story through its walls. And, what cause is better than helping to save this important house, which influenced the whole genre since its construction?
Photo by Orhan Ayyüce
Enough said, let’s cut to the chase;
The historically seminal house, located 2300 E. Silver Lake Blvd., is in high levels of decay and there isn’t enough help to save it, as of now.
Silver Lake neighborhood is located in the heart of Los Angeles with a recorded modern architecture pedigree, and Los Angeles often tells the world about its fatherhood of so called mid century residential architecture that takes full advantage of the friendly climate and the economy of simple lines, advocating modest life styles, minimizing consumption, in its real purpose and message.
Since it is open to the public, the Research House’s dire conditions are no secret. The design magazines know it, speculative real estate community knows it and architectural community knows it. Or do they? I am not sure. They should. Here, I notify.
I wouldn’t elaborate on it at this finger pointing tone, but this is a city where you hear the words “inspired by Neutra” in various forms and places such as architects’ web sites, in countless design blogs, in real estate ads and of course in the circles of armchair design writers.
Pages of coverage, with wall to wall color pictures, for so called Neutra inspired specialists, when they re-build or renovate million billion dollar properties, like the architect and his pupil did years ago with clear aluminum sash and placed the glass in the right place. But, they don’t mention the VDL House, where it was all dreamed up and put to experiment.
Since the house will never be sold to a private investor, nobody really cares. It technically belongs to the state, therefore public, yet the public only cares when they are informed about it. The people don’t know who Neutra is, let alone the house was designated a “World Monument 2000” by the World Monument Watch Society. Unfortunately, VDL2 House fell into Watch Society’s 25% failure rate even though the house is located in one of the richest regions of the world.
Not knowing Neutra is not a crime. No. But a society who is desensitized or indifferent to architecture or uninformed about it, is ultimately indifferent to environment around itself, and ultimately indifferent to the quality of life architecture tries to impact in a positive way.
We cannot let that be the norm.
Neutra said it, “Man’s survival depends on his design.”
The roof is giving away after forty two years, and the Research House is leaking terminally.
Hereby, I would like to ‘inspire’ some civic duty to save this rare house that remains open to the public.
Photo by Julius Shulman
Sarah tells me ashes of Richard & Dione were scattered in the little courtyard from where we are looking back to main house. When I see the memorial bronze plate, (a little too big and out of sync with the house, in my opinion) my eyes get teary and I try to look the other way. This is not only a landmark building, but also a sanctuary. I see Neutra looking at me from the bushes and saying, “don’t get emotional kid, just write about it, eventually they will hear you.”
I listen, regain my posture, and turn to Sarah saying, “I just saw and heard Richard.”
She looks at me like, no surprise... She, as the resident director, and her husband are living in the garden house and probably are used to talking the deceased owners about this and that. It is just that kind of a place, layers of Neutras, you know they are there.
Photo by Orhan Ayyüce
Cal Poly Pomona;
When the house was built, it was only 100 ft. from the lake. The reservoir, since then, receded back and East Silver Lake Blvd. widened and became a high-speed throughway. In its early days, when built during the Great Depression , the front portion of the house was used as the architect’s office, where apprentices like Raphael Soriano and Gregory Ain crashed in the basement and, when they woke up, ate breakfast in the garden before hitting the drafting tables to meet their boss’ deadlines, I speculate.
In 1939, Neutra bootlegged the garage, but really the Garden House , and got some privacy from the kids, including his own.
Mrs. Dione Neutra lived in the house until she died. She left the house to an architecture school, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
The house was donated to millioner Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s poor brother, Cal Poly Pomona Architecture School.
The State cut the world’s biggest university system’s budget and Neutra house started to leak from lack of maintenance money.
Photos by Orhan Ayyüce
“Only those, who have lived in a Neutra House, would ever understand how wonderful the daily satisfactions and delights are and how much this experience help to augment the joy of living. This especially the case in this house which is built on three levels.
With the many glass surfaces, mirrors, pools that reflect trees and flowers, every step from room to room, stairway up and down, is an aesthetic and artistic experience, which I have the good fortune to enjoy, while I move about the house and watch the changing weather.
- Mrs. Dione Neutra
We are not talking about restoring the house to its “full glory” here. The Research House was never glorious by calling attention to some expensive pristine materials or calling attention to the client’s opulent wealth. This house, as the name suggests, was a research house where Neutra used a lot of materials for the first time and like many architects do, took risks of new ways, using his own investment as the guinea pig.
When you see an ordinary material like acoustical ceiling tile or textured stucco here and there, you don’t say how ordinary, but immediately get the idea that the architect was trying something new those days, or experimenting with building materials in their unintended uses.
The real glory was in the very spirit of its occupants and creative lifestyle that made modern architecture desirable. Glorious was that simple living, surrounded by art and talent of the human spirit.
Free flowing nature and air nurtured the occupants and ideas made the house beautiful, not the imported tile or the obsessive object making, which was reserved for hillside clients.
At the Research House, most materials were donated to Neutra Architects for trying.
Photo by Orhan Ayyüce
In 1963, an electrical fire destroyed the house. After seeing the debris a week later Neutra said, “It is all over, there will be no way to reconstruct this ruin.” But later the house was raised from its ashes with the design efforts of the son, Dion Neutra, and of course with the father’s careful watch.
After Mrs. Neutra's death, the decay gradually became visible and impossible to hide.
Rudolf Schindler became the new hero of the Austrian invasion and people started to forget about Neutra for fashionable correctness. The same community who raised hell over a building next to MAK protected Schindler House, knew nothing of VDL House' neighbors or didn't care. Absurd and campy cliches like "Neutra was not as good as Schindler" became a part of groupie conversations in hipster parties.
Photo by Orhan Ayyüce
We are now a culture of ten minute propaganda that lasts for several years. Fashionable gossip creates heroes and zeros because it benefits someone somewhere in the background and nobody asks anymore questions.
Watching the 2300 E Silver Lake Blvd. dissolve is a regretful development.
Not everything is replaceable.
You can help to save this cultural Landmark.
By spreading the word and mobilizing the community.
Visiting the house with your family and friends and donating urgently needed money. Thank you for your kind attention...
Photo by Julius Shulman
Tours of the house will resume on the 5th of April from 11-3pm and every Saturday thereafter.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License .
/Creative Commons License