Jan 312010

Neutra's 1937 Koblick house

Last weekend I made another happy visit to Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood.  It’s famed for its very large collection of once avant garde Modernist houses.  Richard Neutra, in particular, built many iconographic houses, so many that they don’t stand out as an idiosyncrasies in the streetscape.  Neutra’s buildings are usually termed “International Style.”  But are they?  I think not.  It seems to me that they should instead be called “Modern California Style.”

Green and Green, Maybeck, Morgan, Wright and a slew of others created identifiable antecedents before Modernism appeared.  Their hallmarks include the overt presence of an Asian influence, strong acknowledgments of California’s benign climate, reflections of its progressive outlook, and generous use of native stone and readily available timber, especially redwood.

The International Style, by contrast, celebrates machine-made parts and finishes:  glass, steel, pristine white gypsum, and the like.  The style is distinctly European, German particularly, and notable for its lack of any innately American characteristics.

The Neutra Silver Lake houses, along with those of his peers Rudolf Schindler and Harwell Hamilton Harris, are not at all the inhumane sterile International Style “machines for living.”  Instead their decks and terraces spill down Silver Lake’s steep hillsides and slide open to LA’s warm weather.  There are indeed big sheet glass windows for pulling in the views, but there’s not a lot of polished steel.  And these houses are enriched with redwood, stone and color.

They’re a wonderful synthesis of local place and international architectural fashion.  They’ve often been mimed elsewhere, never very happily.  Only in Silver Lake!

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