California, particularly in and around Los Angeles, became something of a wonderland for Modernist architecture from the early 1920s onwards. This was the result of a critical combination of circumstances, but was primarily due to the arrival of two brilliant young Austrian architects, both trained in Vienna and tried and tested by their work in Europe and Chicago. These men – who, although professional rivals, would become close friends – were Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra.
Rudolph Schindler, born in Vienna in 1887, studied at the Vienna University of Technology and the Academy of Fine Art, from which he graduated in 1911. During his studies he came under the influence of the ideas of Adolf Loos and Otto Wagner. In 1914 he moved to Chicago, then a hothouse of contemporary design, where he worked as an architect, and from 1919 he worked for Frank Lloyd Wright, who in 1920 summoned him to California.
Richard Neutra, born in Vienna in 1892, also studied at the Vienna University of Technology. In 1921 he worked for the pioneering Modernist Erich Mendelsohn, and in 1923 – at the invitation of his university friend Schindler – he emigrated to the United States and was soon, if only briefly, in the office of Frank Lloyd Wright.
These young men rapidly evolved an architecture that responded creatively to the idyllic California climate and often dramatic landscape, that utilized the potential offered by new building technologies, that reflected the avant-garde Modernist aesthetic they had seen pioneered in progressive projects in Europe and in Wright’s office, and that – in an inspired manner – captured and reflected the aspirations of their often health-obsessed California clients. Their key projects were almost exclusively private houses, and through these they expressed the spirit of the modern, the minimal, and the ‘go-ahead’, in the process forging a distinct California architecture that, in a wider sense, encapsulated the American domestic dream.
The start was modest enough, though in its theory radical and trend-setting. In 1922 Schindler designed a linked pair of houses, single-storey apart from covered ‘sleeping platforms’ on the roof and each with an L-shaped plan, located in Kings Road, West Hollywood, Los Angeles. One was for his own occupation, and the pair became known as the Schindler House. The houses abandon conventional accommodation – rather than containing discrete living, dining, and bedrooms the houses are open plan and were intended to function as flexible cooperative spaces in which to live and work. So unprecedented was the proposed system of construction that Schindler was initially refused a construction permit. He proposed to cast a concrete slab that, before becoming the floor of the house, would serve as a work surface on which concrete panels would be cast and then ‘tilted up’ to form part of the external walls. This quasi-industrial system was calculated to make construction more economical in terms of time and money.
The integration of interior and exterior space, achieved by sliding glazed screens that allowed the landscape to flow into the house, combined with the house’s relaxed open plan, provided a compelling model for California homes. Schindler went on to design the Philip Lovell Beach House in Newport Beach, California, which, with its expressed reinforced concrete frame, flat roof, and elevated two-storey living room, was the epitome of cutting-edge Modernism when completed in 1926.
But it was in the following year, 1927, that Neutra would design what is arguably the finest early expression of Modernistic domestic architecture created in response to the distinct climate, landscape, and prevailing social habits of California. The client was again Philip Lovell, and this building, known as the Lovell Health House, was a very direct reflection of his love of healthy living, exercise, and nature.
The house sits on an elevated site over which it enjoys splendid views. In response to the rugged beauties of nature, Neutra chose to juxtapose the wonders of minimal, industrial construction to create a home, flooded by daylight, that was an arena for hygienic and healthy living, a place in which to burnish the body and liberate and illuminate the mind.
The main structure of the house is a steel frame, making this arguably the first steel-framed house in the United States. It also reflects Neutra’s fascination with the architectural possibilities of industrial production and with ‘technology transfer’, in which artefacts from other manufacturing processes are incorporated in architecture. For example, the windows are repetitive factory-made units, while the stairwell is illuminated by headlights made for Ford’s 1927 Model A automobile.
Lovell adored the house, which was no doubt largely due to Neutra’s famed skill in kindling relationships with his clients and – like an analytical therapist – getting to know them and their needs. This skill was possibly learned from observations made during his early friendship in Vienna with the architect Ernst Freud, the son of Sigmund Freud and father of painter Lucien Freud.
Schindler’s and Neutra’s architecture had a significant legacy, notably because their work was developed and popularized in sustained and consistent manner by the Case Study Houses. Sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine, these houses – many of radical modern design – were intended to provide ‘dream’ homes for servicemen returning from the war. The houses were largely built in California, from 1945 into the early 1960s, with a notable example being the steel and glass Stahl House, constructed in 1960 on a seemingly impossible cascading site in Los Angeles, and designed by the former GI Pierre Koenig.
Cruickshank D. A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings. Harper Collins UK., 2015.