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Mid-Century Luxe Redux

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

Richard Neutra, revered in his time as a pillar of American Modernism, has become the most collectible of architects. Young couples today vie for his sleek, cleanly designed houses, and landmarks that only a decade ago were butchered with unfeeling additions and careless renovations are now being meticulously restored all over Southern California.

Neutra’s houses were remarkably well-crafted, their sleek, glass-enclosed rooms extending out into lush manicured landscapes. As architecture, many of them were brilliant compositions. They perfectly summed up the ideals that guided the design of the Modernist single-family home in California: They were efficient machines that gently balanced man and nature, but they were also legitimate works of art.

Unlike his rival, Rudolf Schindler, Neutra had no bohemian pretensions, no desire to challenge social mores. Nor did he ever, as Frank Lloyd Wright and many of the great European Modernists attempted to do, successfully expand that vision to include vast urban Utopias. Instead, what sets Neutra’s houses apart is his uncanny feel for the underlying hedonism of the Southern California landscape. These are manageable Utopias, isolated experiments. The best of them are monuments to the individual family, set in a carefully controlled landscape.

Of these, the Kaufmann House, built in 1946 and undoubtedly one of Neutra’s greatest works, is also his most luxurious. The house was commissioned by Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann, the great patron of American Modernism who, a decade earlier, had hired Wright to design a summer retreat in Bear Run, Pa. That house, Fallingwater, remains one of the great 20th century masterpieces. In Palm Springs, Kaufmann wanted something new, and Wright, during the ‘40s, was no longer a symbol of the avant-garde. Neutra’s glass-and-steel aesthetic, with its delicate sliding planes and machine-like precision, represented another future. Soon after its completion in 1949 for what was the then-astronomical sum of $300,000, its sleek forms and mechanical imagery became an emblem of high Modernist style in America.

By the time Beth and Brent Harris bought the 3,200-square-foot house in 1993, however, it was an architectural ruin. Kaufmann had remodeled the kitchen and torn out some of the built-in birch furniture. After his death in 1955, the house was left vacant until the ‘60s, when a subsequent owner built several additions. The Harrises--Beth is a doctoral candidate in architectural history at UCLA and Brent is a financial executive--spent a year researching correspondence and archival drawings at UCLA and Columbia University, studying the photographs of Julius Shulman and analyzing original materials before beginning the restoration.

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That work, by the Santa Monica-based team of Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner of Marmol and Radziner, took four years to complete. The house can now be seen in its full glory for the first time in nearly 50 years. The architects located the quarry Neutra had used for the stones in the chimney and walls so that they could match the exact type and color of the Utah buff sandstone. They recovered drawings for the custom-made aluminum louvers and had them reproduced by the original manufacturer, and they found the machine to make the crimped sheet-metal for the fascias in Kansas City. The kitchen’s cork floors and counter tops--similar to those at Fallingwater--and the exterior’s one-inch-thick hand-troweled, mica-glazed plaster walls were all painstakingly replicated. Door and window frames, demolished by previous owners, and doorknobs and light fixtures were designed to mimic the originals. The owners then bought several adjoining lots to preserve the open feel of the site and to restore desert landscaping.

What could not be restored, of course, was the desert’s openness. The street on which the house stands is now cluttered with pseudo-Spanish tract houses, and one has to imagine the original setting. But the house was intended as more than a pavilion for viewing nature. A carefully controlled man-made landscape of shrubs and lawns becomes an extension of Neutra’s composition.

The house is entered along one of two parallel spines that flank a sandstone wall--one entrance leads from the carport, the other, a more formal entry, starts off the street. Inside, the house spreads out into three wings in a loose cruciform plan. This plan--with living areas close to the center and bedrooms set at the far ends of each arm--allowed Neutra to create a hierarchy of public and private spaces. The guest and staff bedrooms, in particular, seem to float in the landscape, functioning as independent sanctuaries with their own private views.

But the wings of the house also frame a series of outdoor rooms. Enormous sliding glass doors open from the dining area to a garden that separates the master bedroom from the guest quarters. Sliding glass doors expose the corner of the living room to the pool and garden. Only a slender steel column marks the outer limits of the interior. Mirrors in many of the rooms frame diagonal views of the desert, further drawing the landscape into the house, while the flat planes of the walls and roofs direct the eye back toward the landscape. To keep the whole composition from seemingly floating away, the tall stone chimney extends up to an open-air rooftop living space--which Neutra dubbed the “gloriette"--visually anchoring the house at its core. The effect is one of remarkable lightness, as if the house were an apparition.

Neutra, like Le Corbusier before him, wanted to create a “machine for living"--a complex mechanical organism that satisfied all of man’s physical and spiritual needs. The delicate aluminum louvers can be opened and shut to protect the gloriette and an outdoor garden below from wind and sun. Radiant heating underneath the concrete floors--both inside and out--warmed feet during cool desert nights. (Kaufmann planned to use the house as a winter residence.) The landscape, too, is rigorously controlled. The carefully manicured lawns and swimming pool, alongside the master bedroom, became extensions of Neutra’s composition.

But that aura of machine-like precision was, in part, an illusion. To sustain the look of a glass-and-steel structure, Neutra painted many of the wood beams and columns silver. Later, when he hired architectural photographer Julius Shulman to document the project, Neutra carefully mapped out the angles of the shots before allowing Shulman to take his pictures. More to the point, the “machine for living in the desert” had a critical flaw: The orientation of the plan meant that the living room was filled with light during the hottest part of the day.

Modernism’s mission to create Utopia also proved transitory. What once promised to be the beginning of a new world order now seems a distant daydream. To walk through the Kaufmann House is to realize how far we’ve come from this Modernist idealism, its transparent walls now more suggestive of sensual pleasures. In that sense, it is not surprising that Neutra is the architect of choice for young Californians who covet the few remaining Modernist landmarks.


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