Iconic Perspectives: Richard Neutra's VDL Studio & Residences

When we were first welcomed into the Neutra VDL Studio and Residences in the L.A. neighborhood of Silver Lake, one of the first things that was pointed out was a plaque placed under a Chinese elm tree in the courtyard.
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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

The main house of VDL II is made up of a series of modern lines and planes, which makes it one of Neutra’s more eccentric designs. His use of reflective surfaces makes it feel more expansive than it actually is, and accentuates his utilization of water throughout the property. 

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.

Neutra used products that were off-the-shelf and purely industrial. Since manufacturers at the time didn’t know what to do with these materials yet, many were donated to him. 

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.

The collection of books in the upstairs living/dining room (shown here) have remained over the years and visitors are welcome to peruse them with care. Some of the furniture that lives in the residence today was built for the Lovell Health house that Neutra designed in 1929. The pair of Boomerang chairs came from a design Neutra created in the 1940s for Channel Heights, a residential development for shipyard workers in San Pedro, California. Today, the chairs—along with the Low Organic table—are being authentically reproduced by German manufacturer VS. Today’s design has been refined by his son Dion. 

Perched on a piano towards the front of the house is a wooden model that was developed by Cal Poly Pomona students. It illustrates the original VDL residence design before it was destroyed in the 1963 fire. The piano it sits on belonged to Neutra’s wife Dione where she would regularly play and sing. Neutra had cut off the original legs and replaced them with chromed tubular legs for a more modern look.

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.

Because the residence endured through multiple lives, it portrays three different stages of Neutra’s work, each of which is reflected through characteristic details. 

When Neutra and Dion were building VDL II, they developed a handful of forward-thinking technologies that were built to work sustainably with the Southern California climate. Pioneered by Neutra in 1944 and implemented into the 1960s renovation were automated vertical louvers that face west and are controlled by a sensor on the roof that opens and closes based on how sunny it is. They also add a sculptural element to the facade. 

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 incorporated water on all levels of the property. Though Lorenzen doesn’t allow these pools to fill up anymore in order to avoid flooding, rain water used to fill the gravel areas up to two inches. This would then cool down the property during the warmest of days and add even more reflective surfaces to the composition of the house. Additionally, the deep overhangs that can be seen from the front increased air flow throughout the property. 

Like many modernist houses in Southern California, the courtyard was one of the most cherished locations and helped bring together both sections of the house with a pocket garden. Even after being cut 15 years ago, ivy plants continue to spread and shield the house from intense sun exposure.  

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. 

Throughout the house's development, the separation between indoors and outdoors was almost non-existent. Lorenzen explained, "Neutra believed that nature and the senses could have an impact on architecture—smell, sight, and well-being."

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."

As seen here in the courtyard separating the two sections of the house, the whole property is thriving with plant life. After Dione passed away in 1990, Neutra's son Dion placed the aforementioned plaque under the Chinese elm tree to commemorate both of his parents, whose ashes are placed in the courtyard.

Learn more about the 2016 International Iconic Houses Conference here—where we were given the chance to tour this incredible home.


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