Iconic Perspectives: Richard Neutra's VDL Studio & Residences
It read, "Creators of this place united by the idea that man’s survival depends on his design." Neutra's communal concept was radical for the time and radiates throughout the residence. It also points out a collaborative spirit that continues to govern the house to this day. If one was to walk away from this iconic space with one overarching realization, it’d be to understand the power of thoughtful design—and how sticking together is the key. Follow us as we explore the ins and outs of Neutra’s beloved VDL masterpiece.
"...united by the idea that man’s survival depends on his design." -Richard Neutra
As a Viennese architect who moved to America in 1923, Richard Neutra began his American design career at a Chicago firm, followed by a stint of working with Frank Lloyd Wright. Soon after, he made his way west and landed in Los Angeles where he dove into a friendly working relationship with Rudolph Schindler, another Viennese architect who also played a large role in developing the architectural scene of the day. Neutra and his wife Dione actually lived with Schindler and his wife at the Kings Road house in L.A. before considering building his own home in the area. After settling into the city, he was able to secure a no-interest loan to build his family’s home from a Dutch philanthropist by the name of Dr. CH Van Der Leeuw—and so in 1932, VDL was born on the eastern edge of the Silver Lake Reservoir.
With the funds he gathered, he built a glass house on a small lot that would house his family, another family, and his offices. In 1940 when his family began to grow, he built a garden house at the back of the lot that was connected to the main house by an open courtyard. Today, this section of the residence is home to Sarah Lorenzen, the Chair of the Architecture Department at Cal Poly Pomona who walked us through the house while sharing an abundance of knowledge. She pointed out that Neutra’s three sons—Frank, Dion, and Raymond—could often be found running around in the garden house, which had become a dedicated playroom for the time being.
Sadly, disaster struck in 1963 when a fire swept through and destroyed the main house, leaving only the garden house and the basement. Thus, what you see today is the redesigned main house that was imagined by Neutra and his son Dion, who concentrated on the day-to-day operations and drawings of the house while residing primarily in Germany.
Facing the challenge of rebuilding their beloved home, they kept the original prefab basement structure and built two floors above it, along with a penthouse solarium. With the new design, they took the opportunity to experiment and to implement design elements that were quite groundbreaking for the time. This included the creation of sun louvers, water roofs, and other treatments that looked to sustainability and physiology. The materials and treatments he used in the interior—including plywood walls, rosewood formica, micro-counters, and acoustical ceilings—were all meant to be accessible, inexpensive, and easy to maintain.
Over the years to come, Neutra thrived here and produced many of his most influential projects. He also opened up his doors to creative individuals and encouraged apprentices to visit, study there, and even live there—including Donald Wexler, Gregory Ain, and Raphael Soriano. He and Dione were well-known hosts of the day and regularly welcomed other iconic individuals including Charles and Ray Eames, Frank Lloyd Wright, and a slew of political figures and scientists. While we were touring the house, Lorenzen explained how the Neutra couple used the space as a "marketing machine." Dione consistently hosted parties and cultural exchanges, making it the place to be for all things happening in the architecture world. In fact, they held over 300 parties within a ten-year period and 20 to 30 people could be found staying there at once—making them one busy couple managing a high-density mixed-use space.
Neutra lived and worked in this house until he passed away in 1970, continuing to offer it up to individuals who were passionate about design. To this day, the house is used as an educational institution and has become a place where developing architects and design students can stay, learn, and meet with others who are dedicated to modernism. In 1990, the residence was gifted to the Cal Poly Pomona College of Environmental Design by Neutra’s wife Dione, and is managed by Lorenzen and a team who has helped arrange a selection of art exhibits and performances at the house.
While working on the restoration of the property for the last six years, Lorenzen is proud to report that with only a few exceptions, almost everything in the house is original. She exclaims, "Many people are surprised to hear the amount of original fixtures and materials that you’ll find here, especially considering it’s been in use all these years."
Learn more about the 2016 International Iconic Houses Conference here—where we were given the chance to tour this incredible home.