Historic Neutra VDL Research House Serves as Real-World Teaching Tool

Historic Neutra VDL Research House Serves as Real-World Teaching Tool
The Neutra Research House on Silverlake Boulevard in Los Angeles was designed and built by renowned architect Richard Neutra in 1932. It was donated to the university's College of Environmental Design and is now used to teach architecture students.
Ken McCown, director of the VDL House II, stands on a third-story deck of the home in Los Angeles as he gives students a tour.

Some architecture students learn about early California modernists and 20th-century architecture through books, photographs and scaled models. But students from the university?s College of Environmental Design learn while touring and taking lessons from inside a world-renowned architectural structure, the Richard and Dion Neutra VDL Research House II.

“Richard Neutra was a pioneer in shaping environments in the Los Angeles area during the early part of the 20th century,” says Linda Sanders, architecture professor and former dean of the College of Environmental Design. “This house serves as a learning laboratory for students, allowing them to see and learn about its history, technology and materials used.”

Located in Los Angeles? Silverlake District, the Richard and Dion Neutra VDL Research House II was built in 1932 by Austrian architect Richard Neutra for $8,000. The VDL House?so named because it was partially funded by Dutch industrialist Cornelius H. Van der Leeuw (VDL)?was Neutra?s “modern creation.” It represented his progressive design approach and the latest in technology.

After an electrical fire destroyed the house in 1963, Neutra and son Dion rebuilt the structure, reviving the original plan while introducing present-day innovations and materials. The house served as Richard Neutra?s residence and the base for the Neutra Institute.

Landscape architecture students look over documents at the Neutra Research House.

McCown explains to students standing in the backyard of the VDL Research House II that the design incorporates architecture and nature into a peaceful, livable environment.

Neutra?s house reflects his appreciation for the relationship between people and the landscape. Living by his book “Survival by Design,” Neutra articulated his belief in incorporating architecture and nature into a peaceful, livable environment through his use of flat-roof gardens and full-length windows that frame vast views of mountains and the nearby reservoir. The house is decorated in earth tones and muted colors to create a sense of calm, with mirrors and glass used to create an illusion of space.

“Neutra challenged himself to think outside the box,” says Sanders. “He looked for features that would have a use beyond what they were designed for, and the VDL House is a prime example.”

The VDL House was donated to Cal Poly Pomona after the death of Neutra?s widow, Dione, in 1990. Today, the College of Environmental Design uses the building to teach students about modernist architecture and restoration techniques.

“It?s a real-life teaching tool by one of the world?s most renowned architects,” says Ken McCown, director of the VDL House and assistant professor of landscape architecture. “Not only is it a fantastic historic resource that has preserved the late Richard Neutra?s ideas, but also it is a viable method for how we should build high-density housing today.”

The VDL House draws scholars and visitors from around the world. Recently, well-known architects from Japan and an architectural photographer flew out to study the house, says McCown. Each year, the College of Environmental Design also presents a “Neutra Award” to someone whose work exemplifies the architect?s design principals.

While the VDL House is vital to the education of architecture today, it is not without its challenges. Although repairs have been made over the past few years, the house is still in dire need of funding for extensive restoration work estimated at $800,000, including asbestos removal, updating the electrical systems and termite damage repair, in addition to landscaping work.

“It?s at a stage right now where it?s no longer in imminent danger?it?s off of life-support, so to speak?but it?s still on a very serious watch,” says McCown, who maintains the VDL House.

Being recognized as one of the World Monuments Fund 100 Most Endangered Sites in 2000 was a key step in obtaining necessary funding to begin restoring this architectural landmark. The house is one of only five in the United States included on this list, which identifies cultural heritage sites considered urgently atrisk and seeks funds for their rescue.

In 2002?with the help of VDL House former director
Darin Johnstone and a group of graduate students?the facility was one of the 18 Los Angeles County projects to be awarded funds by the J. Paul Getty Trust as part of its Preserve L.A. initiative. The project received a $75,000 planning grant to support a historic structures report, which will serve as the primary restoration guide for the house.

“The college is now pursuing additional funding sources for the implementation phase of the project to bring the house back to its former gem-like quality,” says Carrie Geurts, director of development for the College of Environmental Design.

The formation of a docent program for the VDL House is another goal, says McCown.

“We are looking for people of great character and with an interest in Neutra?s ideas and architecture who can act as docents and give tours of the house,” he says. “This program would allow us to make the house much more available to the public.”

To help support the VDL House preservation efforts or the docent program, contact Carrie Geurts at (909) 869-2666.