Reading L.A.: Thomas Hines on Richard Neutra
When the architect Richard Neutra, an Austrian émigré with a thriving practice in Los Angeles, appeared on the cover of Time magazine in the summer of 1949, an image of Neutra’s weathered face and flowing white hair was accompanied by this brief bit of text: "What will the neighbors think?"
The question -- tongue in cheek and anxiety-ridden at the same time -- suggests that even after World War II, even after Neutra had become one of the most prominent architects in the United States, the battle to convince the American public of the virtues of modern architecture had hardly been won. A flat roof could still, apparently, prompt real skittishness, a purely aesthetic version of what we now call NIMBYism.
On the other hand, how often did news magazines back then -- and how often do they now -- put architects on their covers?
That tension between doubt and triumph, struggle and acceptance -- for Neutra and, more broadly, for modern architecture -- is a major thread running through Thomas S. Hines’ 1982 book, “Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture,” the 10th title in our Reading L.A. series.
In certain ways, the book qualifies as straightforward biography of a monumental and hugely prolific figure in Southern California architectural history. It traces Neutra’s childhood in a cultured Jewish family in Vienna; his trying experiences in World War I and in the years just after; the influence of European architects Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos and Erich Mendelsohn on his work; and his eventual decision to leave the continent for America, where he stopped off in Chicago and worked briefly for Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin before making his way in 1925, at the age of 32, to Los Angeles.
But if the book has the structure and tone of a biography, it also pauses to chart the fortunes of many architects who came before and after Neutra and battled as he did to win over dubious clients and a skeptical public. Hines’ effort to connect Neutra’s story with those of Irving Gill, Louis Sullivan, Wright and younger figures such as Harwell Hamilton Harris and Gregory Ain –- among many others -- is in the end what gives the book its heft and satisfying scope. The complex relationship between Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, his friend turned rival and fellow Austrian, is explored in real depth here, as it is in Hines’ most recent book, “Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism 1900-1970,” published last year.
Though it is tough to fully recognize this reading it now, “Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture” is perhaps most impressive for its against-the-grain timing. When Hines -- a longtime professor of architectural history at UCLA, now emeritus -- began work on the book, in the late 1970s, a persuasive critique of modernism was gaining force, as was the theoretical and formal reaction known as postmodernism, with its focus on historical references, humor, irony and ornament. Neutra’s reputation -- to say nothing of his spare, ornament-free buildings, some of them at that point nearly five decades old -– was at a very low ebb. To embark on a major study of his career at that moment was to be seriously, and one might say bravely, out of step.
The book’s effect on reviving Neutra’s standing –- and that of Los Angeles modernism in a wider sense –- might have been plenty strong on its own. But it was bolstered by a significant coincidence: As Hines was wrapping up his research, around 1980, he traveled to New York for a lunch meeting with architect Philip Johnson. Johnson had by then defected from orthodox modernism to become something of a pied piper for the emerging postmodern school. But Hines was interested in asking Johnson about Johnson’s stint, early in his career, as founder of the architecture and design department at the Museum of Modern Art -– and specifically about Johnson’s decision, with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, to include Neutra in the seminal 1932 MoMA exhibition on modern architecture.
Johnson, it turned out, had just been discussing Neutra with the hugely influential Arthur Drexler, who had moved into Johnson’s old spot at MoMA. Drexler, knowing nothing of Hines’ research, was considering mounting an exhibition on Neutra’s work. Johnson put Hines and Drexler in touch, and these two scholars decided to swim upstream together, curating the MoMA show in tandem.
It wound up opening the same year, 1982, that Hines’ book was published -– a double boost for the rediscovery of an architect and an architectural movement whose standing we now take very much for granted. The 1992 centennial of Neutra’s birth gave his work another push back toward prominence, as did the decline of interest, as that decade wore on, in postmodernism.
But certainly the neo-modern revival –- and the mania for all things midcentury that has accompanied it over the last 15 years or so -– owes something to Hines and his interest in Richard Neutra. Rizzoli published the fourth and most recent edition of the book five years ago.
-- Christopher Hawthorne
Photos, from top: Neutra's Von Sternberg House in Northridge, 1935, since demolished. Credit: Acanthus Press. Neutra's Windshield House on Fishers Island, N.Y., 1938, later destroyed by fire. Credit: Harold H. Costain / Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA