One of the most influential architects on modernist style was Richard Neutra. Though many of his most famous works were built in the 1920s-1940s, they are still the envy of modern designers and home-buyers alike. His commitment to building custom homes that were designed around the needs of the owner helped create some of the most unique and stunning structures of the time period.
Neutra was born in Vienna in 1892, where he developed an interest in architecture early on. He attended school for architecture and took research trips throughout Europe to expand his studies. After a brief stint in the military during WWI, he began working as an architect in Switzerland and Germany. Itching to expand his horizons, he and his wife moved to America in 1923.
Once in the US, Neutra was quickly swept up in the architecture circles, and spent time working under Frank Lloyd Wright at his Taliesin studio in Wisconsin. But his career in America began to take off when he moved to Los Angeles. He soon opened his own practice and won his first major commission - the 1929 Lovell House in Los Feliz, Los Angeles. It was a great achievement in steel-frame construction, and seemingly floats above the hills of Hollywood. That home put Neutra on the map, and his signature style soon was seen throughout Los Angeles.
A Neutra house features clean, crisp lines of the International style. Looking back, experts have further narrowed down his designs, describing them as a combination of Bauhaus modernism with Southern California building traditions, called “Desert Modernism.” They were dramatic, industrial-looking buildings that were perfectly integrated into their landscape. Constructed with steel, glass, and reinforced concrete, they were typically finished with stucco. He had a fresh approach to space, which meant rooms and hallways flowed into each other. Many of the homes had a smaller footprint than any new home you’d visit today, but feel much bigger.
As Neutra began working more steadily, he developed his own unique style. It had less to do with the look of the homes, however, and more with his commitment to his clients. He believed that architecture should connect the owner back to nature and to himself. Before he began working on a new home, the clients were asked to do a thorough questionnaire so Neutra could understand exactly what they wanted and needed for their home. Instead of pushing his own artistic vision on the clients, he allowed their wishes to inform his design, which was very unique for major architects at the time.
One of his most famous projects is the Kaufmann house, designed in 1946, which is known as the best example of International style architecture in the entire US. The design of the home is quite simple, and features a living room and dining room at the center, with the rest of the house branching out like a pinwheel. Located in Palm Springs, it was designed to emphasize a connection to the desert landscape, and offered spectacular views at the time (development has unfortunately blocked them today). It has been described as the West Coast response to Wright’s Falling-water.
When the home was purchased by new owners in 1992, they began a huge renovation process to bring the house back to its original glory. The restoration was critically lauded, and involved thorough research to find the original plans, locating the original suppliers of paint and fixtures, and purchasing a metal-crimping machine to reproduce the unique roof. The finished project is an immaculately restored home that Neutra himself would be proud of.
Another famous Richard Neutra house is the Perkins house, and is a prime example of his efforts to fit his homes to his clients. Constance Perkins was a single professor of art history who wanted a house that would reflect her personal living style: art-loving, landscape-focused, creative, and independent. Neutra designed the home with large glass walls for maximum views of the landscape, and scaled all the cabinets and fixtures specifically to Perkins’ small figure.
In August of 1949, Neutra was on the cover of Time magazine, with the heading, "What will the neighbors think?" His unique homes were not meant be looked over, but their bold style of design led to his extreme popularity and influence.
Throughout his career, Neutra designed around 100 homes, apartment buildings, schools, and other structures. Though primarily located in Los Angeles, his work also included the US Embassy in Kuwait and a series of villas in Europe.
Many Neutra houses have unfortunately since been torn down, including the 1962 Maslon House in Rancho Mirage, and the Cyclorama Visitor Center at Gettysburg. The loss of those homes inspired conservationists to work on saving his other structures. Their fight to save the renowned Kronish house in Beverly Hills influenced the city to start a robust preservation program for other meaningful buildings, and the home is now designated a local historic landmark.
Neutra’s legacy lives on through his son, Dion, who worked as his partner until his father’s death in 1970. Dion has kept the Silver Lake offices designed and built by his father open as "Richard and Dion Neutra Architecture" in Los Angeles. It serves both as an office for the current Neutra firm, as well as a museum of his work, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The distinct design of Neutra houses had a profound influence on Los Angeles architecture as a whole. So many of his projects can be found throughout the region, that it’s easy to see that other architects built projects to mimic his. His glass walls, sweeping balconies, and easy open-floor plans caught on for a reason in sunny California. His insistence on integrating his homes into the surrounding landscape make them a perfect fit for the stunning backdrops and hillsides of Southern California. His modern design somehow still feels futuristic, over 80 years later.
Many of Neutra houses are some of the most stunning pieces of Modernist architecture that can be found in Los Angeles. If you’re ever in the area, take a tour of some of his homes or visit the Neutra museum space in Silver Lake. If you didn’t know any better, you might think these gorgeous structures are new-built designs, instead of almost 80 years old.