‘He told me that happiness in life is to find your own potential.’
The children of Kester Avenue Elementary School walked under the long, covered arcade that connects all the buildings of the school. They were on the way to the auditorium to learn how a man had touched their lives even though he died before any of them was born.
Evident around them were the cool, straight lines, the expansive windows, the subtle manipulation of sunlight and shade that marked the work of a famous Los Angeles architect who helped introduce modern design to the city in the 1920s.
Kester Avenue School doesn’t look much different from several other Valley schools that incorporate the quiet ecological ideas of Richard Neutra.
But, in an area that is hardly distinguished for the originality of its architecture, the school just south of Burbank Boulevard is different. It’s a real Richard Neutra.
Principal Al Davis called the assembly last week to acquaint the upper-grade students with their part in the heritage of Neutra’s work.
The idea came about by accident, Davis said. One day a parent of one of the students mentioned that Neutra’s widow was still living in Los Angeles.
Not knowing what to expect, Davis invited her to speak. It turned out that she was well prepared.
As the students filed into the auditorium, Dione Neutra sat alone on stage. She was elegant in a green, floor-length dress and a heavy necklace of gold plates dotted with stones. She smiled pleasantly.
Without rising from her chair, Neutra spoke in a soft contralto voice with a prominent Swiss inflection. She offered a bit of history that even the staff of the school didn’t know.
She said that when the Los Angeles Board of Education asked her husband to design a school in the early 1950s, he was given a choice between a site on the Westside of Los Angeles and one in Van Nuys. He chose Van Nuys, she said, because he knew how hot the San Fernando Valley was and he was impressed by the presence of 200 walnut trees on the land where the school was going to be built.
She said her husband believed that the buildings people work in remove them too much from nature.
“He felt that the human species was happier when in contact with nature,” she said. “So he was the first architect that I know who developed the sliding glass door to put the people in the room in touch with the garden.”
His plan was to design Kester Avenue School around the walnut trees for coolness.
“Can you imagine how horrified he was after his contract was signed and he found out that they had cut down the walnut trees and only three were left,” she said. “Then he found out they were going to cut down the last three trees.
“Then he told me--and I don’t know if it was true--he said he wrote a letter to the Board of Education telling them that if they cut the last three trees down he would commit suicide and they would be the cause. Well, they didn’t cut the trees down and I think they’re still there today.”
Next she talked about life with the famous architect.
“How many of you know where Austria is?” she asked.
Most of the students raised their hands.
“Good for you,” she said. She said her husband was born in Austria and she was born in Switzerland and that they met when she was 18 years old and studying cello and voice in order to be a concert performer.
“The first time we went out together, he told me that happiness in life is to find your own potential,” she said. “Right then I decided I wanted to help him develop his potential. This I did for 48 years.”
In those years, she followed him to the United States because that’s where Neutra believed the future of architecture would be written.
While he was writing his chapter, she stood at his side, she said. Later she followed him back to Europe, where he died in 1970.
“When he died and I came home alone, my children were very worried what I was going to do with my own life,” she said. “I was not worried. I knew already what I was going to do. I was going to fulfill my own potential.”
She began studying cello and voice again.
“Now I am the only person in the world that can sing and play the cello at the same time.”
And she proved for the Kester Avenue children she could do it.
First Neutra played and sang Sum Cun Pran, which she said was a funny ballad in a dialect of French and Italian. She translated its lyrics like this:
“I lost my husband today. Do you how big my husband was? As big as my little finger.”
The children all giggled.
“I hunted for him everywhere in the garden,” she continued. “I finally found him hiding under a leaf. So I pressed him to my heart to warm him up. Do you know what happened to him then? The ants ate him up.”
She also sang a Scottish ballad, and two Swiss songs about Swiss cheese and calling the cows off the mountain. In that song she yodeled.
Then Neutra played the saraband from Bach’s Third Solo Suite in C Major.
When she was done, she gave Davis a book on her husband’s architecture that had pictures of the Kester Avenue School in it.
“We’ll be indebted to you forever,” Davis said.
“By the way,” Neutra said, standing up to reveal a tall and confident stature. “I’m 84, and I would like to tell you when you grow up, if you have a family and if you have children, to always remember to develop your own potential and don’t get bogged down.”
Quietly, the students filed out of the auditorium, having looked briefly into their past and, with luck, their future too.