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Analyze this: A new work will delve into the infamous destruction of Neutra’s Maslon house

Artist Yan Tomaszewski in front of La Crescenta's Serulnic residence, designed by Richard Neutra. (Roy Dowell)
(Roy Dowell)

The willful destruction of Richard Neutra’s masterwork — the 1962 Maslon house — reads like a senseless architectural murder mystery.

Richard Rotenberg bought the Rancho Mirage home in 2002 for $2.45 million, having never set foot inside the incomparable design. Without explanation, he razed it within weeks, eliciting worldwide revulsion. Inflaming that paradox, Rotenberg later sold the lot and left town.

For 15 years, the question — why did he do it? — has swirled around what has become legend in architectural circles.

Enter French artist Yan Tomaszewski, a nouveau Inspector Clouseau, determined to examine, if not quite solve, that very question. Tomaszewski arrived in Los Angeles from Paris in December, backed by a 9,000-euro French Institute research grant to create an art installation about the Maslon tear-down.

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“I see this as a drama, because the Maslon destruction is so theatrical,” said Tomaszewski, 32, a graduate of Paris’ École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.

Tomaszewski plans to stage his installation in Paris or Los Angeles this year or next, after he completes his research.

It will include an art film featuring a “subjective model” of the 5,000-square-foot, six-bedroom residence, which was commissioned by the late Samuel and Luella Maslon. He is also creating miniature ceramic sculptures of the couple’s famed, home-based art collection.

A consummate researcher, Tomaszewski has visited Palm Springs five times, interviewing preservationists, architects, real estate agents and Maslons’ friends.

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He has even met with Los Angeles psychoanalysts, exploring rarefied theories about Neutra’s modernist architecture — clues he uses to puzzle out Rotenberg’s motivations.

After reading accounts of the story in Paris two years ago, Tomaszewski pondered what caused “such a pure act of destruction.” That musing led him to Freud’s theory on self-destruction, which in turn led him to the works of late Austrian-British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein.

Central to Tomaszewski’s research is Klein’s seminal work, “Envy and Gratitude” (1957), which details binary emotional states that are uncannily played out in the seemingly pointless Maslon demolition.

Tomaszewski views Rotenberg, the buyer, as the personification of envy — an unconscious drive to ruin what is enjoyed and desired by others. Gratitude, the antithesis of envy in Kleinian theory, is epitomized by Neutra and the home, as well as the Maslons and their stunning art collection, Tomaszewski said.

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Internalized by the infant mind, the states of envy and gratitude are said to be unconsciously acted out by adults — hence Tomaszewski’s psycho-artistic approach.

“Yan emailed me and wrote, ‘I’m doing this crazy project,’” recounts Marmol Radziner’s Leo Marmol, an L.A. architect who has met with the artist several times.

“His European voice is unique. I’ve been very supportive,” Marmol said. “Projects like this are opportunities to educate all of us. If architects only talk to architects, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Vienna-born Neutra, a close friend of Sigmund Freud’s son, Ernst, would no doubt revel in Tomaszewski’s psychoanalytical take.

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Neutra fixated on psychoanalytic theories, believing that his glass-rich designs acted much like an analyst, able to unravel the neuroses of his home buyers. Architectural theorists, in fact, have cast the master modernist as a “psychospatial therapist.”

Neutra might have enjoyed Tomaszewski’s initial designs: The artist has perched some of the miniature Maslon art sculptures on small ceramic copies of the home’s couches — as if they are patients undergoing psychoanalysis.

hotproperty@latimes.com

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