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Celebrating a Visionary

Dion Neutra plans to mark the 75th anniversary of the architecture firm founded by his father, Richard.

September 27, 2001|CANDACE A. WEDLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even after all this time, Dion Neutra said he cannot think of anything more exciting than his chosen profession of architecture. After all, he was weaned on blueprints: "My dad started me drawing when I was 11," he said recently. His father, Richard Neutra, was one of the original Modernist architects whose work included private homes and university and municipal buildings internationally. The older Neutra, who died in 1970, opened the family practice in Los Angeles in 1926, the year Dion was born.

Dion Neutra plans to celebrate the firm's 75 years, along with his own, on Oct. 6 at the Eagle Rock Recreation Center, which the firm completed in 1953, with the younger Neutra overseeing design and construction. (His birthday is Oct. 8.)

Neutra oversees the Institute for Survival Through Design, a nonprofit foundation set up to preserve Neutra's architecture. Neutra believes his father's most significant project came along shortly after the firm's founding--the 1929 Lovell Health House in Griffith Park. "It sort of established the basis for our practice, even though [Dad] didn't realize it at the time. A man asked if my dad could design a house that would enhance the health of the occupants, his own family. That sounds like an innocent requirement, but trying to answer that requirement became a metaphor for the practice. That is what we ask ourselves for every project we start: 'How can we enhance the health of the occupants?'

"It is a broad definition of health, including creativity and productivity. We try to understand how a client works and what would make the design efficient for them. That building established him as a world figure and gave us the centerpiece of our whole practice for the next 75 years."

There was never a question that Dion would become an architect, he said. "The first time [it came up] was when I went to USC and was asked 'What do you want to major in?' I said, 'Well, do I have to answer that?' 'Yeah.' 'Well, architecture.' Drafting class was easy. I already knew how to do it."

Father and son were in joint practice from 1965 until 1970, when Richard died at 88. At the time, the firm was in the middle of negotiating what turned out to be the younger architect's favorite project, the Huntington Beach Library. The team was interviewed in the late 1960s for the project. Neutra said he negotiated the final contract after his father died.

"We did an exceptional job. It has many features that I have never been able to bring to bear in other projects. For example, I did research and found out that books and plants love the same kind of relative humidity. That led me to say, 'Let's have a lot of plants--which I wanted to do anyway.

"I hate it when you go into a library, 'Ssshhh, you have to be quiet.' It is very unnatural for kids. So I put in a bunch of interior fountains so the noise level is high enough and natural so that when the kids walk in, they can talk in a normal tone. I introduced a lot of skylights so that you have changing light conditions while you are studying. You won't fall asleep or get bored, as you would under artificial light. Humans thrive on a dynamic environment. Whenever you can make change happen, that is going to invigorate you. So you get subtle changes with skylights."

Neutra still maintains a studio in his home on Neutra Place in Silver Lake, and he said he remembers well his early experiences working for his father.

"I first started drafting at the home office on Silver Lake Boulevard; we lived above the store. My dad said, 'Here is a lettering guide. Why don't you redraw the lettering guide for our new office standard?' As a kid, I would wander through and see people with green shades, and my dad said, 'I'll give you a drafting board, and that's how you'll learn."' Neutra said most of his drawing and design work are done freehand these days.

His current practice focuses primarily on preservation and remodels of the firm's existing work. As for new projects, Neutra says he would love to design a day care center for children in a high-tech setting.

He said one of the challenges in designing the Eagle Rock center was a request for as much flexibility as possible. "So we went wild," he said. "We wanted to be able to open the building like an open-air pavilion, but we also had to design it like an indoor basketball court. So, we ended up designing a series of walls that can rise up like a double-hung window with about 8 feet of clearance." Neutra said the idea was to promote a sense of community, whether for basketball games or concerts.

"We have never designed in a stylistic manner. Our design comes from a deeper place," he said. "We are not concerned about what it looks like--a style someone has seen in a magazine. It is a matter of finding what draws them to the style. So the work has a timeless quality. It resonates with people now. By avoiding modishness, we tap into a deeper place, and that is why people respond."

The Eagle Rock building, which ducked a wrecking ball in the 1980s, was declared a historic monument in 1991 and got a bronze plaque, with the Neutra name misspelled.

The corrected plaque will be installed in time for the birthday celebration, which runs from 6 to 10 p.m.

Tickets to the reception, which are $25 per person, are available on the Neutra Web site: \o7 http://www.neutra.org\f7 , or call (323) 666-1806 or (323) 666-8132. The fee includes membership for 2001 in the Institute for Survival Through Design.

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