In the family way - Issue 52 - Magazine | Monocle

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Architects’ houses usually stand out from their neighbours but the opposite is true for the one Dion Neutra helped his father Richard Neutra build in 1950 in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. Concealed by dense vegetation, it is one of eight siblings on Neutra Place (a one-block street renamed for the centennial of Richard Neutra’s birth) and a short stroll from the vdl House, an experiment in living that boosted the architect’s reputation in 1932 and is now being restored as a cultural landmark.

Dion, who bought his woodsy haven in 1966 and planted the trees, shares it with his wife, Lynn, and children from an earlier marriage come to visit. At the age of 85, he cherishes the illusion of living in a forest, 10 minutes by car from downtown Los Angeles. Vintage photographs show a crisp cubist residence perched on a bare rock. “People look at those and say, ‘It’s so beautiful – why are you hiding away?’” says Dion with a grin. “And I reply, ‘Rather than making a statement to the street, we are trying to enjoy a quiet life.’”

Silver Lake has the feeling of a time capsule. Houses are stacked up along the steep streets that wind up from the reservoir. From afar, it resembles an Italian hill town; look close, and you’ll discover LA’s richest concentration of modern houses, from the 1920s on. The labyrinthine layout deters traffic and the community is fiercely protective of its character. Neutra’s houses are well maintained but new owners sometimes make insensitive alterations – what Dion calls “the granite counter-top syndrome”. The improvements he has made over the years – adding closets and realising the original plan for a second-level apartment – have done nothing to compromise the beauty and integrity of the original.

A developer commissioned the house on spec but Dion recalls his father insisting, “We can’t work in the abstract – there must be a client in mind.” So it was called the Reunion House and designed for a retired couple who would invite their family to stay in rooms at the opposite end of the house from their bedroom. It was home to Richard Neutra and his family while the VDL House was being rebuilt in the mid-1960s, following a devastating fire, and now it serves Dion and Lynn equally well.

The first thing the new owner did when he moved in was remove the heavy drapes his parents had installed to shade the windows and close off the kitchen. For all his progressive ideas, Richard Neutra had one foot in early 20th-century Austria. He took it for granted there would be a cook or maid behind the scenes. Dion served in the US Navy and graduated from architecture school in postwar California, an optimistic but servantless era. For him, the great attraction of the house was its open-plan layout, the room-height glass sliding walls that connect the living room to the garden and the natural light that bathes every part of the house. A mitered glass window at one corner of the master bedroom seems to vanish into space and spider-leg supports extend the house into the landscape. The flat roof projects over the west side to provide shade and shelter.

Those were signature features for Richard Neutra but Dion’s house may be the last that preserves a ceiling of overlapping fir boards. Walls and cabinets are panelled in old-growth Douglas fir plywood and they’ve been varnished to bring out the rich pattern of the grain and the warm tone of the wood. This used to be a utilitarian material that was painted over but now that old-growth wood is no longer available it’s enjoying greater respect. “An excess of grain is like too much desert,” argues Dion, and he has complemented the bedroom paneling with soft-toned burlap wallpaper.

As custodian of the Neutra legacy, Dion is trying to reissue the furniture his father designed, especially the boomerang chair with its sling of canvas webbing. He has subtly enhanced the original model and hopes it can now be marketed. If he succeeds it will show how the best designs have a timeless appeal. This house has acquired the patina of age but it’s as fresh and welcoming as when it was new – another example of how thoughtful architecture enriches lives.

Richard Neutra’s legacy

Richard Neutra was the godfather of modernism in southern California, from the start of his practice in 1927 until his death in 1970. Born in 1892 in Vienna, he was inspired by the most progressive architects of the day. He worked for Eric Mendelsohn in Berlin and briefly for Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, before joining fellow Austrian émigré RM Schindler in LA. Their brief association foundered but Neutra soon won fame for the Lovell Health House, a spectacular tier of white planes cantilevered off the Hollywood Hills. This was an ambitious prototype for the 300 houses and apartment buildings he would design across the US and Europe but mostly in and around LA.

The archetypal Neutra house is a white stucco bungalow with a flat roof, a wrap-around ribbon of windows and silver trim. Occasionally he would bow to context or a client’s wishes to pitch roofs or add a storey. Every house is subtly tailored to the site and the needs of its owners. The office expanded in the 1950s to design schools, public buildings, a church and other large projects but houses always predominated and nearly all are now treasured.

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