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A House Divided

The fragile partnership of architects Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler

Lovell health house

In the year 1953, architect Richard Neutra suffered his second heart attack. Removed from intensive care at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital (now Cedars-Sinai), he was placed in a room with another architect, Rudolf Schindler, who happened to be Neutra’s old friend and, for a brief moment, business partner. Schindler was recovering from his second surgery for prostate cancer, which he succumbed to later that year.

Purely by chance, the hospital staff had reunited for the first time in 20 years two men who together had ushered in a revolution in modern architecture in the 1920s  – but a revolution that would tear their friendship apart in the process.

In 1926, Schindler built the Lovell Beach House on Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula for Dr. Philip Lovell, a health columnist for the Los Angeles Times with a thriving practice. The architect was already looking ahead to designing Lovell’s townhouse in the Hollywood Hills, but instead that commission went to his partner, Richard Neutra. Built just three years apart, the Lovell Beach House and the Lovell Health House were instrumental in challenging notions of what a house should be.

Theories on why the two architects split range from duplicity to romance. According to architecture historian and former Schindler draftsperson Esther McCoy, Neutra went behind Schindler’s back and stole the Health House commission. According to everyone else, Schindler was having an affair with Harriet Freeman, Lovell’s married sister-in-law, which rankled Lovell.

“He didn’t like Harriet and knew that if Schindler was designing this thing, there would be continuous interference,” says Raymond Neutra, the architect’s son, an M.D. in his 70s with wild silver hair and his father’s piercing eyes. “Also, there were some technical failures in two of the projects Schindler had done, and he wasn’t responsive in getting them dealt with.”

Lovell had a mountain home in Wrightwood and a desert house near Palm Springs, both commissioned after seeing Schindler’s Kings Road House, (now a museum in West Hollywood). Built of cement and wood in 1922, it’s a loopy mash-up of Indian pueblo and European modernism adapting Frank Lloyd Wright’s low-horizontal esthetic, with open-air sleeping porches and spaces that blur the border between inside and out. Schindler’s own “seven points” are also at work, including clerestory windows, floors that are level with the ground and openings in the walls. Lovell embraced it as a radical departure from the era’s dominant themes of Spanish Revival and Beaux Arts.

If Schindler was a trailblazer in his dress, lifestyle and art (“an incorrigible bohemian,” as Wright called him), his wife, Pauline, was his equal as a free-thinker who relished her role as host of Sunday salons with occasionally topless dancers and musicians giving impromptu performances attended by people like composer John Cage, novelist Theodore Dreiser and photographer Edward Weston.

By the time Neutra arrived at the Kings Road House in 1925, he was in no mood to party. The war had interrupted his career before it had even begun, and now he had a wife, Dione, and a child to support, and soon a baby on the way. Like Schindler before him, Neutra was coming from an apprenticeship with Wright. Before that, the two Austrians were a few years apart at Vienna’s Technical College, from which Schindler graduated in 1914 and went to the U.S. Neutra graduated a few years later and went to Dubrovnik to fight in World War I before continuing on to the States.

In Neutra, Schindler was happy to find a like-minded architect with whom he could talk for hours. But in most other ways they were opposite. Neutra appears remote and undemonstrative in photos, with a fixed smile and piercing eyes – a buttoned-down family man, driven to succeed. The two were noted for their distinctive dress, their lectures and their twin air-cooled Franklin cars. Neutra’s acolyte, Harwell Hamilton Harris, said they were looked upon as twin freaks.

Schindler had established a small steady practice, with buildings like the Packard House in South Pasadena and Pueblo Ribera Court in La Jolla on his CV. But the Beach House, his grandest, was still under construction. To maintain privacy and unobstructed views, he raised the house on five freestanding cement frames, an exoskeleton carved in squared figure eights with staircases forming a wide ‘V’ at street level. It is the first time engineering elements were left uncovered as part of the facade’s esthetic.

Lovell was pleased with the house, though he had to stoop through doorways, and the upstairs open-air sleeping porches flooded when it rained, not to mention he could overhear the morning conversations of every passing beachgoer as he lay in bed. Oh, and the roof leaked. Schindler closed in the sleeping porches, but according to Lovell’s grandson, you can still hear the beachgoers.

While Schindler was putting final touches on the house, (completed at 30 percent over the estimate), Neutra was considering a competition for a new League of Nations palace to be built in Geneva, brought to his attention by his in-laws, the Niedermanns. Living in Geneva at the time, they volunteered to act as go-between. Neutra enlisted Schindler to collaborate, though judging by Dione’s letters, the latter barely carried his weight, prompting Dione’s father to take Schindler’s name off the plans before submitting them.

“We cannot understand that you always speak in your letter of the ‘Neutra project’ despite Richard’s telegrams where he clearly requested that it be labeled the ‘Neutra-Schindler project,” Dione wrote her mother in August 1927. “How can Richard justify this mistake in front of Schindler, who will simply not believe him?”

Although they didn’t win the competition, their plans, along with others, (including Le Corbusier’s entry), were chosen for a European tour. “When my father was lecturing in 1930 in Europe, apparently he didn’t mention Schindler very prominently when he talked about that project. And Schindler’s friends reported back to Schindler,” is how Raymond Neutra explains it.

Not helping matters were rumors of Schindler’s infidelities, which almost certainly had something to do with Pauline’s departure from Kings Road in 1927. In a letter to her mother, Dione wrote that there was “much vexation” surrounding the completion of the Beach House. “Lovell’s annoyance, less on account of the house but more about Schindler’s character, was perhaps jealousy. In short, he does not want to have any further dealings with him.”

Lovell’s wife, Leah, told Esther McCoy that Neutra blamed Schindler for cost overruns on the Beach House and promised he would come in fast, cheap and on time if given the Health House. She also claimed that once he got the commission, Neutra neglected to mention Schindler would play no part in the design.

It’s a point Raymond vehemently disputes, citing his father’s 1927 letter, reading: “I have brought him (Lovell) now so far that he feels no personal grudge against Schindler and has nothing against it that he participates in the design.” But according to Dione’s letter the following April, “Richard wanted to work with Schindler, tried to involve him, with no success.”

The Health House is named for its promotion of outdoor life and physical therapy, including a school at the behest of Leah Lovell, an educator. The first steel-framed house ever built in the U.S., it was emblematic of Neutra’s embrace of off-the-rack materials as the basis of a purely modern architecture that was cheap, durable and easy to build. The frame, provided by Bethlehem Steel, went up in just 40 hours and was covered in a thin shell of gunite (modern spray-on cement), shot from the nozzle of a hose.

It opened to the public in autumn of 1929 and hosted 15,000 visitors in its first weekend. It was a home like no other, a shot that shook the world of architecture on five continents, even if Wright derided it as “cheap and thin.” In any case, it was good enough for Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, who included Neutra alongside Wright, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe in MoMA’s seminal 1932 Modern Architecture show.

Schindler was conspicuously not included and, by early 1930, still hadn’t received his license to practice in Los Angeles. Neutra went on to become a world-renowned player in the modernist movement, and made the cover of Time magazine in 1949. In January, his VDL House in Silver Lake, built with his other son, Dion, was granted national landmark status.
Schindler continued to work at Kings Road, designing idiosyncratic houses, each its own kind of gem, revolutionary in style and approach. Shortly after saying goodbye to Neutra at the hospital in 1953, he confessed to Esther McCoy that it wasn’t the Health House commission he resented as much as the removal of his name from the League of Nations entry, which he called “an act of malice.”

By the end of his life, his star flickered and dimmed in the pantheon of modern architecture, until resurrected in 1960 by the publication of McCoy’s “Five California Architects.” The other four in the volume do not include Neutra, which doesn’t bother Raymond.

“Schindler approached each project as an artistic new problem. And my father looked at it as an opportunity to make incremental changes to a general approach to a system that is adaptable by others in a fruitful way. My father was always trying to involve other people and work in teams. Schindler, by and large, worked on his own,” he says.

Raymond drove past the Health House last October. There was a microwave sitting on the front porch and no lights were on inside. He knocked on the door, but nobody was home. The current owner is in her 90s and may have moved to a day care facility, which means the house may be on the market soon.

“It’s in relatively good condition,” he smiles, with just a hint of pride. “Hopefully, somebody who cares enough will pay a lot of money and take good care of it.”

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