West Coast meets Eastern Bloc in ‘Competing Utopias’ exhibition

"Competing Utopias" opens this weekend at the Richard Neutra VDL Studio and Residences in Silver Lake.
(Laure Joliet)

When California Midcentury Modernism confronts its Eastern Bloc Cold War counterpart, are they really so very different?

“Competing Utopias: An Experimental Installation of Cold War Modern Design From East and West in One Context,” which opens Saturday at the Richard Neutra VDL Studio and Residences in Silver Lake, poses this intriguing question.

Taking as its setting Austrian-born architect Neutra’s iconic 1965 VDL II house and courtyards, purposely stripped down, and, as furnishings, 350 major pieces from Culver City’s Wende Museum and Archive of the Cold War’s collection of artifacts, the answer is less predictable than imagined.

There is a distinct hand-in-glove quality to this mash-up installation, leading to its assertion that the show “is meant to ask more questions than it could possibly answer.”


Jointly organized by Cal Poly Pomona, curator-owner of the splendid Neutra properties, and the Wende Museum, the exhibition is premised on the idea that the two rival postwar spheres of influence used cultural art forms in addition to politics to present greater, competing visions of the modern world.

Neutra’s clean-lined and light-filled structures are the perfect foil for the streamlined, ultra-functional East Bloc offerings. The surprise here is their candy-colored whimsy: a canary yellow suitcase opens to an egg-shaped seat, a pair of kangaroo-footed chairs in blue and mustard yellow seem poised to leap, a telephone screams in bright orange and black.

And the Neutra spaces, deceptively simple yet deeply complex, offer their own surprises in their employment of reflective surfaces and shadowing. The vintage Stasi spying devices on display feel right at home here too.

Where: Neutra VDL Studio and Residences, 2300 Silver Lake Blvd., L.A.


When: Opening event 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday. Exhibition runs through Sept. 13.

Hours: 6 to 10 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays