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'Build the Past Today' with 'New' Neutra Designs

Kauffman House, Palm Springs. This house, designed for Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann, was the last domestic project by Richard Neutra and arguably his most famous.
Kauffman House, Palm Springs. This house, designed for Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann, was the last domestic project by Richard Neutra and arguably his most famous. | Photo: rocor | Flickr: Creative Commons License

You can -- if you're able to afford the indulgence -- live in yesterday's tomorrow. As the press release from the bespoke brokerage The Agency puts it:

And no, this is not a parody of Dwell magazine. (The parodies are here.)

The Agency is offering the plans for two of Neutra's unbuilt Case Study homes: #13 (the "Alpha House") and #6 (the "Omega House"). The appeal (apart from the designs' intrinsic beauty) is elegiac and nostalgic, at least in The Agency's sales pitch. It's as if "modern," like "Classical," is a yesterday that can be re-inhabited through architecture.

"Old" Neutras in Los Angeles have been lived in for 60 or more years, subject to the whims of homeowners and the effects of time. They aren't "true" Neutra's any longer, The Agency press release archly sniffs.

It's not clear to me how a "new" Neutra is any more "true." And I'm not sure what architectural authenticity means after the moving van has pulled away and the first soiled dish is left in the sink.

Out of anxiety for the permanence of his idea of home, Frank Lloyd Wright bolted down much of the furnishings in the homes he built.

"True" Neutras -- built and unbuilt -- explored what it might mean to live in a modern way in post-war Los Angeles if you were an aspirant member of the middle-class with a taste for the new. Neutra designed Case Study house #6 and #13 as a "thought experiment" for how two families (oddly imagined as married brothers and sisters) could live in complementary houses on adjoining lots.

For Neutra, the interesting problem was fitting two homes -- and slightly different needs -- into a cordial unit that would be focused inward, despite the walls of glass he favored. (One design criterion was shutting out the view of neighboring houses that did not live up to his standards.)

Neutra was always a careful listener. He quizzed the husbands and wives who were his clients on many dimensions of their lives together. He regarded his architectural plans as the translation of their needs and values into space that would answer needs in an efficient, cost effective way and express values in a better and purer form.

As a consequence, Neutra imagined elaborate backstories for the Omega and Alpha families for whom houses #6 and #13 were to be built. They had at least five children among them, for example, and the families expected to be much in each other's lives. The wives were culturally ambitions, but in small ways. The husbands were DYI enthusiasts (mashing up the craftwork of the Bauhaus with American dad energy).

The "new" Neutras offered by The Agency have a different patron in mind, with different needs. "Our clients," The Agency wrote, "have long coveted and wished to acquire 'Neutras' and homes from the Case Study House Program. Under this partnership, you could build both. Imagine being able to build Neutra's Case Study Program designs ... as your home or guest house!"

The affluent hipster who might build plan #6 or plan #13 as a guesthouse isn't looking to shelter a specific kind of modernity in a home framed by the functional needs of stay-at-home housewives. With so many disconnects from Neutra's architectural practice, the purposes of mid-century modernism, and the reasons why that kind of new was so desired, a resurrected Neutra looks to me like an antiquarian's folly. It's awfully Disneyland.

Still, I'm nostalgic for what might have been. When I think of the kind of house that's always new, it's a house of glass and steel and right angles. For Neutra, that kind of house -- in its purity -- was architecture's inevitable endpoint. It wasn't.

Modern now is just another period style. And you can live in yesterday's tomorrow, but I don't know why. And it will cost you.