Richard Neutra’s VDL House, which was originally built in 1932 and then rebuilt in 1965 after sustaining significant damage in a fire, has been an icon of Los Angeles for good reason. Known for its recognisable glass structure, rooftop and balcony gardens, its penthouse solarium and reflecting pool, the residence was not only home to Neutra and his family, but his architecture practice as well. 

Since 1990, the house has been in the stewardship of Cal Poly Pomona University’s College of Environmental Design and Department of Architecture, in honour of Neutra’s relationship with the institution, and transformed into a house museum and a platform for cultivating art, architecture, culture and education. It has welcomed several exhibitions and installations to explore new ideas in those realms, and is currently under the new curatorial guidance of directors Noam Saragosti and Juhee Park, who took the reins at the onset of the pandemic. 

Richard Neutra’s VDL House

The exterior of Richard Neutra’s VDL House. Curtains by Misa Chhan are visible through the glass windows; the curtains’ patterns are inspired by local vernacular wrought-iron window gratin

Now the house presents the first group exhibition/intervention since the pandemic (on view until 7 November 2021). Organised together with the art and design gallery Marta and the artist/writer Erik Benjamins, ‘Built In’ presents a collection of new and site-specific works from 32 creatives across the disciplines of art, design and architecture that engage with the built-in and historic elements of the legendary house. All specially created for the show, the works, which range from lighting and furniture to curtains, fragrance diffusers, a cooling system, and ceramics, celebrate the dialogue between past and present while paying poetic homage to the intrinsic structures of the residence.

‘When we first visited the VDL House, we were collectively and immediately struck by the home’s built-in furniture elements, which punctuated our walk-through across all levels,’ recalls Benjamins. ‘Some were more expected – closed storage, built-in seating elements, gridded shelving for books and material samples – while others were more of a surprise; sometimes unexpected, sometimes hyper-particular or even idiosyncratic.

‘These built-in moments honour Neutra’s intense pursuit of a house’s potential for programmatic use; the daily rhythms specific to the house’s residents – in this case not only the architect himself, but his family, employees, and collaborators.’

Living room of the Richard Neutra VDL house

The living room’s built-in seating was replaced by heated cushions created by Brody Albert. The designer explains: ‘The gesture was inspired by a Duchampian concept known as “infrathin”. When asked to define the term, Duchamp replied, “One can only give examples of it… the warmth of a seat which has just been left is infrathin.”’ The coffee table is an Alex Reed reproduction of Neutra’s design

‘The home is an exemplary work of vernacular modernist architecture, but the fact that the building was both the Neutras’ personal home as well as the site where Richard Neutra ran his practice inevitably makes for a number of interesting architectural moments, spatial transitions, and programme-specificity within the home,’ adds Marta’s Heidi Korsavong.

‘Certain rooms, for example, can be further defined by sliding partitions that allow a guest or collaborator or apprentice to carve out a personal space for themselves for short- or long-term stay, like the notable LA architect Gregory Ain did early in the house’s life.’

‘Built In’ by Marta and Erik Benjamins

From left, Noam Saragosti, Erik Benjamins, Benjamin Critton and Heidi Korsavong

Benjamins continues, ‘The participants in “Built In” operate within, adjacent to, and far beyond the design profession: the show hosts new works from visual artists, designers, architects, writers, olfactory artists, food practitioners, media artists. The diversity of the kinds of creative work paints a picture of how we’ve guided responses to the show’s brief: gently and openly.

‘Of course, thinking about the tangible built-ins immediately encourages physical ways with which to creatively respond, but we also wanted to encourage responses that acknowledged something we’ve come to call ‘built-in-ness’; a response less concerned with the dimensionality and physicality of these architectural facts, but instead their spirit, poetry, and symbolism. Ultimately, the common thread that unites this house party of a show is a deeply considered response to the site’s design, rhythms, history, and inhabitants (past, present, future).’

The show notably only features practitioners based in the Los Angeles area, ‘as we knew we wanted this personalised introduction to the home’s physicality and history to inform artists’ and designers’ works’, says Korsavong. ‘In this way, there are projects that respond humbly to the intangible spirit of the home and the echo of its past inhabitants.’

Studio furniture inspired by the house, including a chair, table and stools, created by Fiona Connor. ‘Song of Saint James II’ water fountain by Charlap Hyman & Herrero

‘This actually became one of the common threads: works that speak less to the house’s original author and architect, and instead commune quietly with Neutra’s family members,’ concludes Marta’s co-founder Benjamin Critton. ‘A sound work by Jeremiah Chiu that occupies the home’s ceiling-mounted built-in speakers mixes found audio of Dione Neutra’s voice with field recordings taken in the house. A bench by architecture office TOLO pays homage to the Neutras’ son, Frank, whose severe autism previously left him out of several important narratives surrounding the home.

‘The VDL house’s site in the context of its neighbourhood has also proved to be fertile territory for several contributing artists: a fountain by Charlap Hyman & Herrero activates the home’s intrinsic water features and dialogues with the adjacent Silver Lake Reservoir, simultaneously drowning out the sounds of nearby traffic with the white noise of the water’s steady trickle. “Built In” broadens the definitions or parameters of the house’s architectural and historic significance, opening up the legibility of the site itself.’ §