Technology has played an important role in design since the beginning, and its early developments were utilized by some of the industry’s most influential characters. Richard Neutra’s 1932 VDL Studio and Residence is one of L.A.’s most iconic houses and is a prime example of how an architect experimented with topics of the day and pushed the boundaries with what was available at the time.
Neutra believed that design should be used to improve lives, and that technology could help. Instead of trying to fight against what was available, he worked with the Southern California climate to create a comfortable and innovative house that he lived and worked in for almost 40 years. Watch this video to learn how the late architect carried out these ideas and how one of today's most useful tools has recently been installed to keep these ideals alive.
As Sara Lorenzen (Director of the Neutra VDL Research House) and Barbara Lamprecht (Neutra scholar and architectural historian) explain in the video, the VDL Residence was Neutra’s own home from 1932 until he passed away in 1970. Consequently, it represents three distinct stages of his extensive career—the early, middle, and late periods. To learn how these stages developed over his lifetime, read more about the house’s history here.
One of the most important elements of the house is the clear connection to nature. As an architect that hailed from Vienna, Neutra brought to America an international modernism that he quickly adapted to fit with California’s pleasant climate and relaxed lifestyle. Everywhere you turn, you can see how it encourages an indoor/outdoor lifestyle and celebrates the natural environment. This is accentuated with an endless amount of glass, numerous doors, roof deck, and an open garden area between the two parts of the house.
"Iconic buildings usually represent the cultural issues that were important in that time period—a type of 'zeitgeist of the moment.'" - Sarah Lorenzen
According to Lamprecht, Neutra's insistence on an indoor/outdoor connection was not just a romantic idea—but it was requisite. As one of the earliest houses to really promote this theory in the area, Neutra designed relevant technologies that were extremely forward-thinking for the time. The first example involved one of nature’s simplest, most powerful tools: water.
In order to utilize its innate benefits, he built water pools on every level of the house. Besides making the building feel light as air, the surface of the water reflects the surrounding environment (up to two inches). In Lorenzen’s words: "It makes the architecture disappear." The water also assists in keeping the house cool on the warmest of days.
Another way that Neutra worked with the L.A. climate was with the use of sun louvers, which he pioneered in 1944 and built into the house’s 1960s renovation. The automated vertical louvers face west and are controlled by a sensor on the roof that opens and closes based on how sunny it is. They also provide a sculptural element to the facade of the house.
As Lorenzen explains in the video, Neutra was interested in figuring out how technology could make a house fit into the period in which it existed. He wanted to make people’s lives easier and saw the potential in simple technologies—which had become common modernist belief at the time. In order to bring Neutra’s theory to the present day, Lorenzen sought out a quality, beautifully-designed system that would be fit for a historical landmark. After much research, she decided to install the outdoor security cameras from Nest. As a house museum that sees numerous visitors and overnight guests everyday, she realized how helpful it would be to keep a closer eye on the house, which has been carefully preserved since Neutra’s days.
Ever since she installed the Nest Cam Outdoor on the front of the house, she can now receive an alert whenever someone comes to the front door—both day and night. Since she lives in the garden house in the back, it’s hard to know when someone approaches, especially when tourists and people from the neighborhood walk right into the house without warning.
In the video, Lamprecht recalls the Neutras’ perspective on letting the house be open and welcoming: "Mrs. Neutra would invite people up and encourage them to spend time on the rooftop—but you had to sit down in order for your eye to join the water on the roof and the Silver Lake reservoir beyond the house." The camera in the front yard and garden allows Lorenzen to preserve this custom with peace of mind.
Lorenzen believes that the VDL house owes its iconic nature to the fact that it reflects the lifestyle, environmental awareness, progress, and technology of the midcentury modern movement. Today, the house still boasts the original innovations that made it so unique during Neutra's lifetime, but also continues to be updated to ensure that it remains well-protected and preserved over the years to come.