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ART REVIEW : A Showcase for the Multilevel Talent of Neutra

TIMES ART CRITIC

History sometimes strokes its artists with one hand while clobbering them with the other. UCLA’s innovative University Elementary School was designed by the pioneering Los Angeles modernist architect Richard Neutra. Not long ago, three of its classroom pavilions were knocked down to make space for a new building. Now that selfsame institution of higher folly presents an exhibition in his honor.

“The Drawings of Richard Neutra: A Centennial Exhibition” resides in the upper rooms of the Wight Art Gallery, one of a number of events celebrating what would have been Neutra’s 100th birthday. The show was handsomely selected by UCLA professor of history and architecture Thomas S. Hines, who wrote the book on Neutra and lives in one of his Westwood apartment buildings.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 10, 1992 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 10, 1992 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Column 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Misidentified-- Architect Rudolph Schindler was misidentified in Thursday’s Calendar in a review of “The Drawings of Richard Neutra: A Centennial Exhibition” at the Wight Art Gallery at UCLA.

This is the most comprehensive show of Neutra drawings yet assembled. A scan of the 139 sheets reads well on several levels, not least of which is their surprising aesthetic snap. These are the works of a gifted draftsman worth viewing for their own sake, a distinct rarity in the excessively rational and stylized realm of architectural drawing.

Neutra was the man who brought the machined sensibility of Teutonic international modernism to Lotusland and turned its rigorous goose-step aesthetic into a white orchid floating on a blue pond. Everybody knows the look of the work. Basic post-and-beam boxes of steel and concrete when not of plywood. Flat roofs with overhangs. Long ribbon windows and glass sliding doors that let in so much of the surrounding landscape a visiting Easterner once quipped: “Being in a Neutra building gives one a tremendous urge to go indoors.”

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Architecture buffs know the landmarks. The no-nonsense Westwood apartment houses that were rented by people like Charles Laughton and Clifford Odets. The cluster of dwellings in Silver Lake that seem to offer L.A.'s quintessential Good Life. The city Hall of Records.

The Lovell House on Dundee Drive off Commonwealth Canyon Road is the main icon. Charles Moore termed it one of the great monuments of modern architecture. But it suffers from a disease common to aging modernist buildings. Since purity of conception precludes the kinds of moldings and decorative bits that hide the wrinkles and cracks, the buildings, as Moore says, “look like the very devil when they start to go.”

Neutra’s long life was exceptionally prolific. When he died in 1970 at age 78 he was an international celebrity who’d made the cover of Time. He designed more than 300 buildings, most of them located right here. But that’s only part of the reason Neutra’s architecture looks like deja vu revisited.

History also cuddles and clobbers its great artists by rapacious emulation that turns the Eiffel Tower into a canape fork. Neutra received the most insincere form of flattery in battalions of dingbat knockoffs that curdled his energetic purism into penal impersonality. They made people of taste hate glass sliders. Worse, in these days of Clockwork Orange burglaries, it made people fear them.

It’s really too bad. Neutra himself cared about low-cost housing. He designed a minimalist dwelling for farm workers that managed to house six people decently in just over 500 square feet of space.

You can’t judge architecture by the way time and greed screw it up. Los Angeles now has Colonel Sanders chicken emporiums in the style of Frank Gehry.

If one knew nothing of Neutra’s background it would be abundantly clear from the style of early drawings that he was a child of the Vienna Secession. Early figure and travel studies have the elegance of Gustav Klimt mixed with the neurotic sensitivity of Egon Scheile. A 1917 self-portrait finds Neutra in self-scrutiny, pleased at possessing a certain sinister charm. Neutra had no trouble exposing himself nude as a life drawing model.

Years later he designed a decidedly theatrical and moderne residence for film director Josef von Sternberg. It echoed his early admiration for Adolf Loos. Later, Ayn Rand, who wrote “The Fountainhead,” bought the house. Neutra conceded that his early mentor Frank Lloyd Wright was the model for Rand’s fictional architect hero Howard Roark, but insisted that he was the model for Roark’s “sex appeal.” Neutra’s persona included a dash of good-humored arrogance.

Rather surprisingly, this dandy reinvented himself as a socially conscious architect of noticeable self-effacement. His buildings are not as nearly in one’s face as those of, say, Wright.

His development toward the soft L.A. elegance of late works like the Adolph Brown house shows in the drawings. Partnership with Adolf Shindler reflects in their joint design of an addition to Wright’s Hollyhock house. Neutra’s urbanism is clear in a striking scheme for the League of Nation’s assembly building in Geneva. One admires the uniform rigor of his Corbusier-like “Rush City Reformed,” but is glad it wasn’t built.

The combination of Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus aesthetic probably gave Neutra’s architecture its winning restraint and willingness to experiment. His populism shows in a design for an aluminum bus, in furniture as plain and functional as Stickley’s.

There’s a whiff of humor in some stark schemes for gas stations that seem to predict Ed Ruscha. There’s an endearing modesty in designs for public schools like Emerson Junior High. All schools are named for great people, but imagine how nice it must feel to attend one designed by a great architect.

* UCLA, Frederick S. Wight Gallery, (310) 825-9345, to May 10. Closed Mondays.

* COMMENTARY

Art critic Christopher Knight laments the razing of Neutra’s buildings at UCLA. F10


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