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Little Big House : Design: Cal Poly Pomona plans to promote the heritage and principles of Richard Neutra by displaying his Silver Lake residence.

July 18, 1991|AMY LOUISE KAZMIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The late architect Richard Neutra designed his home in Silver Lake as a personal expression of his belief that living in a small space need not be a claustrophobic, confining experience.

He proved his point.

Covered outdoor terraces blur the lines between indoors and outdoors. Strategically placed mirrors confuse the eye, giving an illusion of vast space. Glass walls and huge windows allow natural light to stream in.

Dense bushes and trees planted around the building create a sense that inhabitants are in a secluded wilderness rather than a busy urban center, and a glass-enclosed rooftop porch offers a magnificent view of Silver Lake right across the street.

The 2,010-square-foot house is a critical part of Neutra's legacy to Southern California architecture. It epitomizes his belief that a home greatly affects the physical and mental well-being of its inhabitants and that even in an urban area, people can live in harmony with the natural environment.

After Neutra's death in 1970, his widow, Dione, spent two decades promoting her husband's work, inviting people to visit and experience the house so that they could understand the Neutra philosophy.

Now, the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona will carry on that tradition under the terms of an agreement officials there made with Neutra before his death.

When Dione Neutra died last year, the university, where the architect taught for about six years, inherited the two-story house and agreed to use it to "promote the heritage and principles of Richard Neutra," said Marvin Malecha, dean of the College of Environmental Design.

The university is trying to carry out its mission in a variety of ways.

Architectural classes and continuing education programs are scheduled in the house. The house also serves as a conference center, and some graduate students may be given studio space on the lower level, which served as Richard Neutra's office.

Patricia Oliver, associate dean of the College of Environmental Design, said the house "is of great benefit for our students, who have a chance to see what the Neutra house stood for, what it meant. Our mission is to educate architects. There is no better way to do that than to experience good architecture."

The house is also open for tours by special arrangement with the college, and visiting academics may be housed there temporarily.

Each year, one member of the college "family" will be chosen to live in the house rent-free in exchange for acting as the building's caretaker and enduring the endless stream of visitors, Malecha said.

This year, that occupant is Mark Dillon, an assistant professor of architecture who rented the free-standing garden house behind the main house for almost four years in the early 1980s.

The garden house served as a playhouse for the Neutras' three children, but after they were grown, it was rented to various tenants.

While Dillon lived there, he developed a close friendship with Dione Neutra. The friendship endured after he moved out and was a factor in the university's decision to select him to live in the main house this year.

Dillon said that when she was alive, "Mrs. Neutra was very interested in having people come and go through the house. She was very interested in putting Neutra's work in front of the public and using the house as a model for a quality of life that involved music, good food, all types of things."

Even now, he said, visitors from around the world constantly drop by unannounced, hoping for tours. When he is in, he said, he generally obliges. Sometimes "they leave notes, and I call them back.

"The understanding that Mrs. Neutra had with the university was that the house would be as open as possible," he said.

But Malecha does not want the home of one of Southern California's most innovative architects to remain the exclusive domain of the architectural cognoscenti. He wants it to be open to the public for tours one day a week.

"It's a fantastic place," Malecha said. "It embodies an entire concept of urban living. No matter where you are in the house, you always have the sense that it is two or three times larger than it is."

Dillon said "the quality of space and the quality of life are really extraordinary. There is natural light in every room, and a very soft line between being inside and being outside.

"It affects everything. The house is very giving. You understand the weather and the character of the day."

Public tours may be a long time in coming, however.

The university received a $100,000 endowment from the family to accompany the house, but Malecha said it would require a $1-million endowment to provide enough annual income to pay for maintainence and repairs and to hire a curator to oversee the tour program.

"It's not just touring people through it," Oliver said. "It's preservation, gardening, to keep it in really good shape."

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