Fred A. Bernstein

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Saving L.A.'s Modernist Houses, One by One

This one's a gallery; that one's a publicly accessible private home

Published in Interior Design, May 1, 2014

Southern California is filled with significant modernist houses - the work of the Austrian emigres Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra; of architects enlisted to design "case study" houses in the immediate post-war years (including Pierre Koenig and Eero Saarinen); and of later innovators like John Lautner, known for his cantilevered, spaceship-like residences. These days, few of the important houses serve their original function; instead, they are operated as museums, whose directors grapple with questions of how the buildings should be maintained and presented -- now that most of them are vacant -- without becoming empty shells. Sarah Lorenzen, the director of Richard Neutra's VDL Research House, says, "If a house isn't going to be occupied by a family, it needs to be occupied by something else."
But what else? Earlier this year, directors of some the best-known Southern California houses came together at a conference organized by the Iconic Houses Network, an international group of directors of modernist "house museums." They exchanged ideas for keeping the houses afloat, financially and artistically, and heard Franklin Vagnone and Deborah Ryan, authors of the Anarchist's Guide to Historic House Museums, urge them to experiment freely with new ways of engaging the public.
Pierre Koenig's Case Study House No. 21 (completed in 1958) is too small, by today's standards, for residential use. But its location, on a winding road in the Hollywood Hills, makes it difficult to operate as a museum. In 2007, Seomi International, a Korean-owned art dealer, bought it to use as a private gallery. A few years later, the company opened a design division and began using it as a setting for displays of furniture, ceramics, glassware and lighting. Linus Adolfsson, the managing partner of Seomi, says the house is perfect in that role, since "we're stressing the idea of living with art." Because there's always someone working in the house, he says, "we can show it to anyone who wants to see it." Indeed, he said, neighborhood residents have come to embrace the gallery in their midst - "people walk over with their friends," he says, "and they appreciate that we don't charge admission."

The Schindler House (1922), on Kings Road in West Hollywood, was designed by Rudolph Schindler to be occupied by two couples (Schindler and his wife, Pauline; and their friends Clyde and Marian Chace), with a communal living room and kitchen. Since Pauline Schindler's death, in 1977, the house has been run by the non-profit Friends of Schindler House; in 1994, the group signed an agreement with the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art, Vienna, known as MAK, to use the house as a gallery for art exhibitions, operas, plays and dance performances. As "a setting for experimental practice, we will consider and try a wide range of projects, and are not afraid to fail," says the house's director, Kimerbli Meyer. But those who would like to see the house as it was lived in -- including students of interior design -- are out of luck. The Friends group decided to restore it to its 1922 state, removing all signs of later habitation. That fit the building's new mission. "It is very consciously not a house museum -- therefore no furniture," said Meyer.

Prefer a house replete with furniture and other signs of habitation? In the early 1960s Lautner designed a house in Bel-Air with a vast concrete roof that swoops down over a cantilevered swimming pool. In 1972 it was purchased by developer/playboy James Goldstein, who after the architect's death in 1994 worked with one of his prot�g�s, Duncan Nicholson, to add new buildings to the property. Earlier this year, Goldstein, who is in his 70s, promised the house to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But his agreement with LACMA allows him to live in it for the rest of his life. According LACMA spokesperson Stephanie Sykes, the museum will begin using the house for events "that engage the house as the work of art that it is." At the same time, she said, Goldstein will "continue making additions to the property, as he has done for the last 40 years."

Richard Neutra's VDL Research House, in the Silver Lake neighborhood, commissioned in the early 1930s and named for the client's initials, was left by Neutra's widow to the Cal Poly Pomona Foundation to be managed by the school's College of Environmental Design, which uses it mainly for educational purposes. Architecture students, for example, might be asked to design a hypothetical expansion of the house. And it has been the site of a number of art installations, including "Competing Utopias," a commentary on the Cold War, in which its furniture was replaced with pieces from the old East Germany. "Our rule is that whatever art we install must be site specific, and should acknowledge either the architect, the period in which the house was built, and/or the spatial qualities of the house," says Lorenzen. Because the house was passed directly from the Neutras to the school, it did not "suffer from remodeling," she said. And the furniture is either original or designed by Neutra and made posthumously by the furniture company VS.

Four houses: One lived in, one used as a showroom, two operated as non-profit galleries. Different approaches with the same goal -- making what were formerly private homes places worth visiting, and in that way keeping them from ruin. As Vagnone put it after seeing the houses earlier this year, "It's appropriate, given the issues facing them, that each house found a different way to survive." Together, he said, the four are "at the cutting edge of ways to make these sites useful and relevant to today's audience." As with so many things, he added, "L.A. is definitely in the forefront."