MEETING A MASTER: DION NEUTRA

Dion Neutra, son and partner of legendary architect Richard Neutra, is turning 90 next week on Oct 8th, 2016.  I met Dion last April while touring his VDL house and studio building on a Los Angeles trip, and was able to speak with him for awhile.  He has lead the architecture firm since his father’s death in 1970.

His father Richard, one of the founders of the Modernist movement, was inspired by the Wasmuth Portfolio of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work while living in Vienna.  He moved to the United States by 1923 and briefly worked for Wright before accepting an invitation from his close friend and university companion Rudolf Schindler to work and live communally in Schindler’s Kings Road House in Los Angeles.

 

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Dion and Richard Neutra. Photo credit Dion Neutra.

Neutra had an appreciation for the relationship between people and nature; his designs mastered the blending of indoor and outdoor space to produce layered, stimulating spaces through simple forms lacking in traditional ornamentation.  His ability to incorporate technology, science, and nature into his designs brought him to the forefront of Modernist architecture.

Speaking with Dion, I was in awe of his mental sharpness despite his age.  At the forefront of his mind still weigh ambitious ideas on the future of architecture.  His and his father’s book Survival Through Design, or STD as he jokingly calls it, is a comprehensive study of the environment’s effects on humans that is rooted in science, termed Biorealism.   The book is an ambitious attempt to establish universal design guidelines to produce buildings that support healthy humans and a healthy (sustainable) environment, not unlike the work of C. Alexander’s A Pattern Language.  But STD attempts to be farther-reaching by addressing world-wide environmental crises and including scientific/medical research for person-centered design.

Since the early seventies, the practice of our profession has become increasingly complex, with external events having greater effect: earthquakes, oil crisis, energy conservation, decreased environmental quality, universal handicapped access, to name a few.

As these happenings came onto the scene, one after another, I have been again struck by the lack of comprehensiveness in the way these events ended up impacting our lives.

…Meanwhile early efforts to stimulate alternate-fuel research and development have been largely supplanted by emphasis on ‘finding the last drop of oil’ and burning it!  Environmental quality has, in many cases, had to ‘give way’ to ‘cost effective’ analysis of what is affordable for business while turning a profit.  Meanwhile the toxins build; the lakes, bays and parts of the ocean, water, land, and air die.

The notion of access for the handicapped…again suffers from lack of anyone to imagine the overall effect.  But here it is anyway, however imperfect, it will be implemented whatever the consequences.

It becomes obvious that in our see-saw reactions to one crisis after another, we still suffer from our inability to place matters into an overall context which is:  What is the optimum long term solution which will be best for man’s survival on this planet?

 

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The VDL Research house as viewed from the front. The crisp geometric planes and glass walls are contrasted with pops of natural materials of stone, wood, and lush landscaping. Large metal louvres on the right can be adjusted open or closed to control the level of privacy in the bedrooms.

In 1932, Neutra built his own home and studio, the Van der Leeuw (VDL) Research House in the Silver Lake area of LA.  After a fire destroyed the house in 1963, Neutra redesigned it with Dion and rebuilt it.  California State Polytechnic University now maintains it and runs public tours.  Below are photos from my tour….

 

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The blending of indoor/outdoor is clearly illustrated in the rear walls of the house overlooking the courtyard.

 

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The rear courtyard.

 

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2nd floor covered patio with stair to 3rd floor pavilion.

 

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2nd floor living room.

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Oversized glass sliding doors on the 2nd floor covered patio.

 

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The kitchen is small but feels airy because of the high perimeter windows, which are shaped to block views of neighboring houses, while feeling like your in a tree house.

 

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The third floor is an all-glass pavilion.  The stair opening can be closed off with hinged panels that open to form the railing.

 

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Third floor deck and pavilion.

 

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This is a shot demonstrating the excellent natural light throughout the house.  From the second floor, it is almost impossible to see neighboring houses despite their close proximity (these are small ‘city’ lots!)

 

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The Neutra Studio Building.

 

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Some other Neutra designed houses in the Silver Lake area.

 

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