We’ve already established that I welcome any excuse to tour a cool, old house. So when I found out that there was a new art exhibition opening at the Neutra VDL Research House in Los Angeles’ Silverlake neighborhood, I cleared my calendar.
And I was glad I did. Because not only is Richard Neutra’s Modernist complex tricky to tour (tours are typically offered only on Saturdays, or on Tuesdays and Thursdays for larger groups by appointment only), seeing it reinterpreted through the eyes of an artist helped me view the site -- and my city -- in a whole new way.
The exhibition, Architectones, is the creation of French artist Xavier Veilhan. It is the first in a series of installations he is producing for various Modernist landmarks, including Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #21 in Los Angeles, and, further afield, Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse in Marseille, France, and the Melnikov House in Moscow.
Each installment of Architectones will respond to its environment, and the work Veilhan created for Neutra’s complex managed to highlight some of its most stunning features, while also nodding to the Neutra family, Modernism, and Los Angeles’ place in design history. A mobile of golden orbs on the second floor catches the natural light streaming inside from the wall-to-wall windows; a series of black silhouettes of Neutra capture the architect throughout various stages of his life; and a mirrored silhouette of the Neutra family at the top of a staircase reminds you that while it feels like a museum today, the structure was, in fact, a family home for more than four decades.
There are a number of other silhouettes on the property, plus sculptures of a car, a boat, and a metal flag soaring above the rooftop. A soundtrack created by a member of the French band Air accompanies the exhibition as well.
To produce such an intimate interpretation of the house and its history, Veilhan lived in the VDL House with his family prior to the opening of the exhibition. He cooked dinners in the small kitchen, his children slept in the rooftop solarium, and, I would imagine, the entire family relished every second of living in a house where the indoors and outdoors merge so fluidly in classic Neutra fashion. I admit, I am jealous.
At the exhibition’s opening night, Veilhan shared how much he and his family enjoyed their time in Neutra’s house. It’s no wonder why. Neutra designed his home to be a living and working environment that, despite limited space (the complex was built on a 60-by-70-foot lot), could still offer a tranquil, inhabitable environment that combined high efficiency and good design -- without sacrificing affordability or a sense of privacy.
The result was a stunning prism of wood and glass with gardens, reflecting pools, and patios, plus gorgeous views any way you turn. Neutra named it the VDL Research House after Dutch industrialist Dr. Cornelius H. Van der Leeuw, who provided Neutra a portion of the capital to build his experimental home.
The main house was completed in 1932. (A fire destroyed the original house; Neutra and his son Dion, also an architect, redesigned the structure in 1965, and the Garden House at the back of the lot was built in 1939.) Legions of architects, writers, scholars, and other intellectuals flocked to the complex upon its completion, turning it into a vibrant cultural salon for decades.
Today, after years of neglect, the complex is regaining some of that vibrancy, as a major restoration is underway. Two roofs have been restored, but there’s plenty of work that still needs to be done -- and plenty of funds that need to be raised.
Veilhan will contribute a portion of his sculptures’ sales to the restoration efforts. And in the meantime, VDL House Director Sarah Lorenzen says that events like the Architectones exhibition help attract new audiences to the complex, drawing attention not only to its preservation needs, but also to its importance to the city.
The exhibition is open Thursdays through Sundays and will run through Sunday, Sept. 15. Admission is $10 on Saturdays, and a $10 donation is suggested for other days.
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Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based Field Editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about history, art, architecture, and public space.