LOST: RICHARD NEUTRA’S MID-CENTURY MODERN FENESTRATION by John Blanton
Born January 1, 1928 and raised in Houston, John Arthur Blanton graduated from Rice University, earning a B.A. in 1948 and a B.S. in architecture in 1949. He worked his way up in Richard Neutra’s practice from apprentice to “collaborator,” becoming one of the master’s trusted lead project architects in the so-called “Golden Era” of Neutra’s residential architecture. Beginning on his birthday in 1950, Blanton worked on preliminary designs for Neutra before serving in the U.S. Army from 1951 to 1952. He returned to the Silverlake studio in 1953, remaining until mid-1964, when he established his own practice. His distinguished career includes local and national awards for his work and inclusion in many local and international publications including Les Krantz’s “American Architects” of notable practitioners and Bruno Zevi’s ‘L’architettura.” As an architectural writer, Blanton wrote book reviews to the “AIA Journal” and wrote critiques for the Society of Architectural Historians, Southern California, and for his newspaper column, “Better Buildings.” Listed in “Who’s Who in America” and “Who’s Who in the World,” he retired in 2012. Blanton’s plans and drawings are being prepared for the archives, UCLA Special Collections. He shares his observations on Neutra’s approach to one facet of fenestration here.
Among the great collective contributions of the non-traditional movements in architecture within the last two centuries is the “freedom of fenestration.” For example, no longer are architects limited to variations on the spacing of double-hung windows. And this new freedom has led to enormous opportunities for extra delights.
Just as new musical styles are associated with a generation, as bebop in the ‘40s led to jazz in the ‘50s, new architectural styles rise to the top every 20 years or so. And while it is true that many ideas and expressions are happening at any one time, one can still recognize a general pattern of agreement. After 1945, when war-time building restrictions ended, mid-century Modernism ignited the imaginations of architects for two decades. Laymen then lost Interest until its revival beginning in the mid 1980s. In the interim, the useful purposes of the original establishment of the style were forgotten or distorted. That is how a whole lot of history is lost.
Not everything! The studies in neuroscience in architecture will continue to show the benefits of bright, daylight rooms and probably many other aspects of work of the 1950s, when individual windows “punched” into a wall became a no-no.
In light of the changes that followed, I believe a review of Richard Neutra’s fenestration is justified. While ideas changed around him, he remained faithful to his original objectives. He maintained a purposeful approach as others around him began to toy with formalism, which essentially means knowing the ‘correct’ answer before knowing all the questions. Their iconic imagery would replace the organic concept of “Form Follows Function.”
Lowering costs through simplicity was always a factor for him so that the client could afford gracious social areas within a limited budget, which he took very seriously. This can be seen in rooms with a single exposure and in how he provided natural light to low, flat-ceilinged rooms (eight feet was standard at the time) without supplementary clerestories or skylights. After all, those supplements involved awkward window washing, maintenance of flashing to avoid leaks, and room-darkening devices.
A room with a single exposure, especially a bedroom or business office, is the hardest to work with. Neutra’s answer was wall-to-wall windows, but not necessarily floor-to-ceiling. Extending them to the corners created light onto, and gained reflection from, the side walls. This accomplishes brightness with lessening of glare. Some light from those walls reflects back onto the solid portion of the window wall, again decreasing glare. Thus, a feeling of a dark cave wall with a single overly bright opening was avoided. The effect of opening up the room is further enhanced because the eye flows to the nature beyond the glass, unhampered by the enclosure of dead corners. I have long believed that glare is caused by the eye’s rapid re-focusing between light and dark. This is stressful, which is why it is uncomfortable. Together with similar adjacent rooms, these wall-to-wall windows produced a long ribbon window on the exterior.
The walls below Neutra’s continuous windows might have built-in cabinetry or in a color different than the white side walls, perhaps the favorite color of a child occupant. If white paint were to be used below the windows as on the side walls, that low band of paint would actually appear to look dirty because less light is being reflected there. However, because using a color could detract from the view outdoors, which was his invariable goal because it promised the most actual health benefit, he did this on an individual basis. Ideally, his choice for this lower band was his chocolate “Neutra Brown.” This particular brown, it seems to me, is a “magic color” in that the eye identifies it but does not attempt to focus on it, so its use is oddly comforting, as I have experienced.
Any post in this extended bank of windows was usually painted silver, another “magic” color. It created the least amount of contrast with the incoming light, and it almost made any post disappear to create openness. Again, expansiveness! Additionally, Neutra ensured that any vertical sliding door jamb would be hidden on the exterior side of a post or wall. Likewise, he concealed the horizontal head of such door so that it was hidden within or behind the roof framing. Again, openness, rather than a sliding door frame silhouetted within the structural frame, which would pose another obstruction to our view of the outdoors. It is an experience so subtle that it is not seen other than subliminally. All this gives us the “Neutra impact.” We do not look at his windows, we look through them.
In the next twenty-year cycle, the architects of the 1970s strove to make their projects not to look like the ‘50s, by then passe. That is what a next generation does. Thus, ribbon windows became a no-no. Separated windows punched into walls became a fashionable choice again. The result? Glare!
These and other trends seem to be conceits based on style, while the sensible reasons behind the “forbidden” motifs are forgotten. I suggest that we do not let the power of the desire for consensus suppress our better judgment. What say?
John Arthur Blanton AIA-E
June 10, 2016