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Neutra, in miniature

Far from his signature homes are apartments that symbolize the architect's concern for the masses.

May 25, 2006|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

A beaming Mike Resnick is standing outside the 1958 garden apartments that he bought in September -- eight units, in an unglamorous part of North Hollywood, purchased in what he describes as a state of extreme disrepair.

"That's the beauty of L.A.!" he says. "That Richard Neutra, at the top of his game, would build an apartment complex in Los Angeles, in a neighborhood like this."

The Poster apartments, in truth, are not exactly prime-time Neutra: They opened nine years after the architect's appearance on the cover of Time, and they were followed by a decade in which his rationalist style of Modernism fell out of fashion and he increasingly focused on projects in Europe.

The apartments are not included in David Gebhard and Robert Winter's authoritative "An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles," and their only mention in Thomas S. Hines' 350-plus-page "Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture" is in a complete list of the firm's projects.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 01, 2006 Home Edition Home Part F Page 9 Features Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Neutra apartments -- An article in last week's section about architect Richard Neutra's Poster apartments incorrectly said the Neutra-built Strathmore apartments were for UCLA faculty. Though many of the units have been occupied by faculty, the complex is not university housing.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 02, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Neutra apartments: An article about architect Richard Neutra's Poster apartments in the May 25 Home section incorrectly said the Neutra-built Strathmore apartments were for UCLA faculty. Though many of the units have been occupied by faculty, the complex is not university housing.

But in some ways, the apartment complex demonstrates the architect's vision, both aesthetic and social. While Neutra's interest in housing for the masses is well known to scholars, to much of the public it has become a lost chapter of the architect's life.

Few associate the idealistic Austrian, who moved to California in 1923, with the then-emerging European Modernism that considered workers' housing a central goal.

The time may be right for a renewed appreciation of these apartments by major Modernists. Kimberli Meyer, director of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in West Hollywood, knows of several apartments by Rudolf M. Schindler that are either on the market or are being refurbished.

"As we get more and more dense in Los Angeles, and everybody wants more housing, there's a higher consciousness of the importance of good design," says Meyer, whose organization manages the Schindler-designed Mackey Apartments in Mid-Wilshire. "This brings the historic buildings into focus, and the sense that it's worth revitalizing these old Modernist designs. For a long time, places were really deteriorating."

Resnick, a member of the Los Angeles Conservancy for more than a decade, couldn't agree more. He bought the Poster for more than $700,000 and has put about $250,000 into renovations. He's fond of repeating a line that Neutra offered David Poster, who commissioned the North Hollywood complex with his wife, Grace: "People think I only design homes for the rich," the architect said. "But the promise of my architecture is housing for the masses."

The apartments are small, roughly 600-square-foot one-bedrooms with air conditioning, private porches and a shared pool. They were originally rented, partly furnished, to what David Poster called "the top level of working class and lower middle-class people" -- young nurses, photographers, salesmen, teachers and medical students -- for $130 per month.

"Good design isn't just something you read about in shelter magazines, or see on home tours," says Resnick, who with his baseball cap and unshaven chin looks like he might drive a cab. "It's not just for coffee table books -- you can live in it!"

JUST about every architecture-related statement from Resnick ends with an exclamation mark. Neutra cultists can understand the enthusiasm.

Thirty-six years after the architect's death, his homes are still admired for their sleek steel lines, floor-to-ceiling windows that seem to emit an inner glow and their ability to seem as iconic and integral to the landscape as the foothills and eucalyptus groves they're set among.

To many people, especially those who know the homes from Julius Shulman's photographs, the dwellings are awe-inspiring. Neutra classics such as the Lovell Health House (1929) in Hollywood and Kaufman House (1946) in Palm Springs seem about as accessible as Mt. Olympus.

But social housing -- dwellings for the working class in an increasingly crowded industrial society -- consumed Neutra as much as it did other Modernists such as Walter Gropius, Ernst May and Le Corbusier.

"He started thinking about affordable housing as far back as the '20s," says Barbara Lamprecht, the author of "Richard Neutra: Complete Works."

In post-World War I Europe, intellectuals and planners tried to find a way to accommodate the growth of urban societies using modern science to get beyond the tenements of the 19th century. Generally, the sharp-edged aesthetics of Modernism made a more complete journey to America than its ideology and social commitment.

But the issues, Lamprecht says, remained important to Neutra, who was an advocate of high density and a human scale his whole life.

"He believed that if you had very small houses, you also had to find a way to make them feel good," she says. "Neutra seemed to be constantly asking, 'How many square feet does it take to lead the good life?' The whole idea was to trick the senses; Neutra thought of his buildings as sensoriums."

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