Neutra in the South Bay
Modernist architect Richard Neutra leaves a lasting impression in Palos Verdes and beyond.
There is one name in a long line of modern architects that unarguably warrants instant awe-factor: Richard Neutra. But what some South Bay residents might not know is the Vienna, Austrian-born architect—whose projects range from Kaufmann House in Palm Springs (1946) to Painted Desert Community Complex in Arizona (1958) and the now-demolished concrete and glass Cyclorama Building in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (1962)—designed furniture, such as the woven, slingback “Boomerang” chair as part of the Channel Heights Housing Project in the 1940s. He also designed more than a dozen buildings, schools and private residences throughout Palos Verdes, Torrance and Manhattan Beach.
“Every community that is lucky enough to have one of his gems is reminded that universally good design is simple, thoughtful and elegant, with timeless lines that transcend trends, pop culture and real estate sensationalism,” says Patrick Killen, AIA, principal of Studio 9 one 2 architecture firm in Manhattan Beach. “It speaks quietly while remaining humble and true to its roots—true indoor/outdoor living with a ‘less is more’ attitude. We build too big and have little or no regard for the importance and value of exterior space, versus adding yet ‘just another room.’”
One such project that remains a prominent example of his attention to detail and harmonious indoor/outdoor design is Palos Verdes High School (600 Cloyden Road, Palos Verdes Estates), designed in 1961 by Richard and architect Robert Evans Alexander. Located near Paseo del Mar, the 37-acre, mid-century-inspired high school comprises a series of grassy, outdoor courtyards (lockers line the inside of many of these courtyards), red clay tiled roofs, wood-and-stucco buildings and spider-leg-shaped metal support frames.
In 1991, due to declining enrollment, Palos Verdes High School closed, consolidated with Rolling Hills High School and was renamed Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, with a first graduating class of approximately 900 in 1992. The high school operated as Palos Verdes Intermediate for several years before reopening once again in 2002.
“We had done many schools for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in the past, including Emerson Junior High—now Emerson Middle School, and was one of the earlier, larger projects that my dad did,” recalls Richard’s second oldest son, Dion Neutra, a Silver Lake, California–based architect and preservationist.
“The first one that he ever did for LAUSD was the Corona Avenue School in the 1930s, which was the first bilaterally-lighted, single-loaded classroom school that was ever done. So that was a kind of pioneering effort. We had a chance to make an addition to that in the late 1960s, so that was nice to come back to the same campus.”
Dion, who worked with his father (the two teamed up in 1965), explains that while he didn’t work on the Palos Verdes High School project himself, he was aware of some of the building restrictions, including one key design element: tile roofs.
“During the partnership of Neutra and Alexander, we did a school out at UCLA, Seeds University Elementary School, and this opportunity came up about Palos Verdes,” he explains. “I didn’t happen to be the architect on that project, so I didn’t work on it myself that much, but of course I am familiar with the fact that they had these restrictions of tile roofs there. And so designing some of the major, larger structures with tile roofs was a huge additional cost. Normally we would have found a less expensive way to do it, but they forced us to follow that all the way through. It’s interesting. I doubt if there are many buildings of that size with tile roofs on them there.”
Dion also explains that after his father designed the first private residence in Palos Verdes in the late 1930s for longtime clients Dr. Grant and Mildred Beckstrand, he became familiar with the area and “loved it” and “would always enjoy doing any project there.” But he attests that Palos Verdes High School remains the major project they did in that area.
Dion adds that this project, along with others his dad designed, is all about creating a valuable user experience and a connection to nature. “We’re trying to create an atmosphere that enhances the experience of the user, whether it be the teacher or the student,” he says. “If you can create an atmosphere that enhances learning, what could be better? That’s the whole purpose of architecture. It’s not just about putting in a roof over your head; it’s about trying to make that process be more productive and more effective. One of the major ways to do that is to put yourself in contact with nature. That’s what we came from, and we’re used to that and that’s engrained in us and you cannot wipe that away. That’s just a basic need.”
RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE Riviera United Methodist Church, 1958
NEUTRA, THE BACKSTORY
Born in Vienna, Austria, on April 8, 1892, Richard Neutra was the youngest of four children: three boys and a girl. He studied at the Vienna University of Technology and the University of Zurich and later worked for landscape architect Gustav Ammann in Switzerland.
He served in the Austrian cavalry for two years, and in 1922 he met and married Dionne Niedermann (her father was an architect) in Hagen, Germany. There he worked with architect Erich Mendelsohn.
The Neutras came to the United States in 1923 and briefly settled in New York. He worked in Chicago and Wisconsin with Frank Lloyd Wright before opening his own practice in Los Angeles in 1926. The Lovell House, built in 1929 for naturopath Dr. Phillip Lovell, was one of his early commissions.
Richard graced the cover of Time magazine (1949), designed more than 300 projects and became one of the most prolific figures in modern architecture. In 1970 he died of a heart attack at age 70 while on a photo shoot in Germany.
SOUTH BAY STANDOUTS
Richard Neutra also placed his stamp on the South Bay with numerous projects and private residences including the Riviera Methodist Church in Redondo Beach and the 1940 Beckstrand House (1400 Via Montemar, Palos Verdes). This three-bedroom, four-bath residence in Malaga Cove features large-paned glass windows to highlight the view of the Pacific Ocean and was originally commissioned by oncologist Dr. Grant Beckstrand and his wife, Mildred.
Richard also designed a medical center in Long Beach for the couple, as well as a lodge in Utah. Other projects include the Coe House in Rolling Hills (1949) and the Dailey
House in Palos Verdes (1961) with a double-sided fireplace.
Today Richard’s projects remain integral to the California landscape, and his influence is easily recognized by architects and students around the globe. “The recently restored Dailey House in PV is a good example of a building with great bones having the ability to be restored and brought back to its original grandeur,” adds Patrick Killen. “We need to adopt this attitude more often; we are running out of landfills.”
Now Dion, who resides in the original Neutra built in Silver Lake (The Reunion House, listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places), is still his father’s biggest advocate. He debuted the Neutra Institute Museum & Gallery in Silver Lake, has authored books including The Neutras: Then & Later and dedicated much of his time and effort in preserving Neutra projects.
“I always like to get people to try to express what it is about the architecture that gives them joy or makes them feel better,” says Dion. “And sometimes it’s hard to put it in words, but most people can come up with something or some feeling of what they remembered about it, or experienced about it, or whatever it might be.”
But, he adds, it’s his duty to help preserve modern architecture in general and not just his father’s beloved buildings. “People are very loathe to do anything which limits their options,” he says. “And that’s one of my other projects that I work on, is trying to convince these people that if we’re going to save these buildings, it’s worth it to really try and have some teeth to make it happen and not just hope that it’s going to happen. Unless you have solid protection, there’s no guarantee.”
PROLIFIC BY DESIGN Neutra on the August 15, 1945 cover of Time; Neutra desk that originated in the Beckstrand home; Taschen’s Neutra: Complete Works