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Neutra, in miniature

Times Staff Writer

A beaming Mike Resnick is standing outside the 1958 garden apartments that he bought in September -- eight units, in an unglamorous part of North Hollywood, purchased in what he describes as a state of extreme disrepair.

“That’s the beauty of L.A.!” he says. “That Richard Neutra, at the top of his game, would build an apartment complex in Los Angeles, in a neighborhood like this.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 1, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 01, 2006 Home Edition Home Part F Page 9 Features Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Neutra apartments -- An article in last week’s section about architect Richard Neutra’s Poster apartments incorrectly said the Neutra-built Strathmore apartments were for UCLA faculty. Though many of the units have been occupied by faculty, the complex is not university housing.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 02, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Neutra apartments: An article about architect Richard Neutra’s Poster apartments in the May 25 Home section incorrectly said the Neutra-built Strathmore apartments were for UCLA faculty. Though many of the units have been occupied by faculty, the complex is not university housing.

The Poster apartments, in truth, are not exactly prime-time Neutra: They opened nine years after the architect’s appearance on the cover of Time, and they were followed by a decade in which his rationalist style of Modernism fell out of fashion and he increasingly focused on projects in Europe.

The apartments are not included in David Gebhard and Robert Winter’s authoritative “An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles,” and their only mention in Thomas S. Hines’ 350-plus-page “Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture” is in a complete list of the firm’s projects.

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But in some ways, the apartment complex demonstrates the architect’s vision, both aesthetic and social. While Neutra’s interest in housing for the masses is well known to scholars, to much of the public it has become a lost chapter of the architect’s life.

Few associate the idealistic Austrian, who moved to California in 1923, with the then-emerging European Modernism that considered workers’ housing a central goal.

The time may be right for a renewed appreciation of these apartments by major Modernists. Kimberli Meyer, director of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in West Hollywood, knows of several apartments by Rudolf M. Schindler that are either on the market or are being refurbished.

“As we get more and more dense in Los Angeles, and everybody wants more housing, there’s a higher consciousness of the importance of good design,” says Meyer, whose organization manages the Schindler-designed Mackey Apartments in Mid-Wilshire. “This brings the historic buildings into focus, and the sense that it’s worth revitalizing these old Modernist designs. For a long time, places were really deteriorating.”

Resnick, a member of the Los Angeles Conservancy for more than a decade, couldn’t agree more. He bought the Poster for more than $700,000 and has put about $250,000 into renovations. He’s fond of repeating a line that Neutra offered David Poster, who commissioned the North Hollywood complex with his wife, Grace: “People think I only design homes for the rich,” the architect said. “But the promise of my architecture is housing for the masses.”

The apartments are small, roughly 600-square-foot one-bedrooms with air conditioning, private porches and a shared pool. They were originally rented, partly furnished, to what David Poster called “the top level of working class and lower middle-class people” -- young nurses, photographers, salesmen, teachers and medical students -- for $130 per month.

“Good design isn’t just something you read about in shelter magazines, or see on home tours,” says Resnick, who with his baseball cap and unshaven chin looks like he might drive a cab. “It’s not just for coffee table books -- you can live in it!”

JUST about every architecture-related statement from Resnick ends with an exclamation mark. Neutra cultists can understand the enthusiasm.

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Thirty-six years after the architect’s death, his homes are still admired for their sleek steel lines, floor-to-ceiling windows that seem to emit an inner glow and their ability to seem as iconic and integral to the landscape as the foothills and eucalyptus groves they’re set among.

To many people, especially those who know the homes from Julius Shulman’s photographs, the dwellings are awe-inspiring. Neutra classics such as the Lovell Health House (1929) in Hollywood and Kaufman House (1946) in Palm Springs seem about as accessible as Mt. Olympus.

But social housing -- dwellings for the working class in an increasingly crowded industrial society -- consumed Neutra as much as it did other Modernists such as Walter Gropius, Ernst May and Le Corbusier.

“He started thinking about affordable housing as far back as the ‘20s,” says Barbara Lamprecht, the author of “Richard Neutra: Complete Works.”

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In post-World War I Europe, intellectuals and planners tried to find a way to accommodate the growth of urban societies using modern science to get beyond the tenements of the 19th century. Generally, the sharp-edged aesthetics of Modernism made a more complete journey to America than its ideology and social commitment.

But the issues, Lamprecht says, remained important to Neutra, who was an advocate of high density and a human scale his whole life.

“He believed that if you had very small houses, you also had to find a way to make them feel good,” she says. “Neutra seemed to be constantly asking, ‘How many square feet does it take to lead the good life?’ The whole idea was to trick the senses; Neutra thought of his buildings as sensoriums.”

Some of Neutra’s techniques came from his interest in the origins of humanity and gestalt psychology, Lamprecht says, and his interest in creating a harmonious environment that emulates the species’ earliest settings.

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Most of these gestures -- large windows that provide natural light and views to outdoor patios, exterior soffit lighting that creates a curtain of illumination and provides privacy inside, low surfaces that don’t clutter lines of sight -- were used even in the Poster’s modest apartments.

Walk through the units, which Resnick plans to rent for about $1,000 a month, and it’s clear they are hardly luxurious. But the spaces feel far more expansive than their square footage suggests. Windows to private gardens keep them from feeling cramped.

Although neighbors will live in close proximity to one another, there’s an emphasis on seclusion: The patios of the upstairs units, for instance, are fully private, with high walls separating them from adjoining units.

An outdoor pool abuts the building and serves as the central recreational space, but the sightlines are arranged so that residents retain privacy even when it’s cannonball time: Floor-to-ceiling windows are on the south side, facing away from the water.

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“It was definitely a budget job,” says John Blanton, who worked in Neutra’s office and effectively served as the project architect for the building. “So we couldn’t do a lot of the tricks we’d do on a bigger place.

“We tried for that Neutra feeling, where the space expands and your feelings expand with it. Because the windows go around the corner of rooms, your eye doesn’t stop there. It had to have Neutra’s goals: It shouldn’t be fancy, but it had to have some distinction.”

THE Poster is not as ambitious and fully realized an example of Neutra’s push for affordable housing as, say, his Channel Heights development. That plan, built in the early 1940s on a hilly, 150-acre site overlooking San Pedro Harbor and since demolished, showed his sensitivity to pedestrian patterns and included small redwood houses, a day-care center, and views of the ocean and a park.

Neutra also designed housing for Chavez Ravine, in what was to be a model affordable community until McCarthyite politics crushed the project, as well as the Progressive Builders houses in Burbank, which became a model for Levittown, N.Y., itself a model for suburban living nationwide. There are others, including the Strathmore apartments for faculty at UCLA.

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“He probably designed close to 1,000 units for defense housing in the States, in Texas and Long Beach and Pueblo del Rio in Los Angeles,” Lamprecht says.

Resnick, who argues that developers can be crucial players in preservation, says he wants to honor Neutra’s vision.

“I need it to be special, and I want it to be something that sustains,” he says. “After 40 years of mostly hard life, it’s still here, and mostly intact. And I want it to be here in 40 more. I think this could be the start of something great.”

Scott Timberg can be reached at home@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Come see it for yourself

Time: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

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Description: Eight restored one-bedroom apartments, each furnished/staged by designers big (Modernica) and small (Steven King, who makes one-of-a-kind Modernist furniture)

Location: 6847 Radford Ave., North Hollywood

Cost: $10

Information: www.not-a-box.net; registration strongly recommended

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-- Scott Timberg


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