Intertwined Agendas: Comparing the Lovell houses, Schindler and Neutra

Notes for a Talk: Comparing the “Two Lovells,” Rudolf M. Schindler’s Lovell Beach House, Newport Beach, 1926; Richard J. Neutra’s Lovell Health House, Los Angeles, 1929. 

A PORTRAIT OF INTERTWINED AGENDAS – 

Transcending Style

Both architects and both buildings attempt to transcend the constraints of “style,” and in that both support Adolf Loos’s famous dictum of a house on the outside being dumb to protect its inhabitants. Neutra certainly loathed any association with the “International Style,” complaining that if any tradition deserved the label it was the Classicism of Greece and Rome … and Schindler’s manifesto of 1913 declares that “the modern dwelling should not express style or personality; it should provide a quiet environment for the occupant.” Yet while they both attempt to transcend style, the two houses were the exact style “Doctor Lovell” ordered to embody the height of fashion.

There are any number of ways to analyse these two houses. One way, obviously, is tectonically and spatially. Another is the unique convergence of European and American ideas about health, manifest in these houses that are “bodies” for healing human bodies. Each house was fit to a purpose, just as the body is fit for a purpose: Both houses resolved competing agendas; both represent the visage, the affect [stet], the face of, Philip Lovell.  Shelter from the storm no longer the only duty of architecture. 

But what are some other factors?

  1. the role of European sanitoria whose design anticipated modern architecture with insistence of the role of Licht und Luft .. beds that could move out into the sunshine, flat roofs – snow loads and rooftop terraces; the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918.
  2. the German embrace of Nature as ameliorative, a very romantic view, seen in the poetry of Goethe and Schiller, music – Beethoven’s 6th, the Pastoral. European background: Wanderlust, the culture of sanitoria , the cult of nature, romance – flat roof. Germania: “Die Seele wird vom Pflastertreten krumm” (“treading the pavement distends the soul,” as poet Eric Kaestner observed.) Only a return to Nature can make you whole. Goethe’s romantic and rather Shintoesque takes that God was present in all things natural.
  1. the parallel development of quantitative psychology, seen in Goethe’s writings on science and Wundt’s 1874 Principals of Physiological Psychology. From Europe, then, the idea is the continent’s failure to control disease. By contrast, where could one control health?
  2. California’s role as being a perfect petri dish integrating some quantifiable and some quack ideas about nature. For example, in Vienna, you had to go through several transitional spatial stages to get to actually warm rooms. Often these stages required keys, heavy in your pocket. My parents lived there for eight years, and I know the heavy ring of keys from personal experience. In California, you could dispense with these stages, and often the myriad of heavy keys, and build with the thinnest of membranes—glass—or no membrane at all.
  1. The role of a house as the face, the visage, the soul, the mind, of its owner … and no one wanted to be more perceived as a radical Modernist than Morris Saperstein, who was as Horatio Alger as they get, starting life out as a Jewish insurance broker in Hoboken and ending up as the distinguished, wealthy, Dr. Philip M. Lovell, with no less than Harry Chandler as his patron. Just as important as Chandler’s wealth, the publisher had suffered from tuberculosis, a disease that had the notorious title “Captain of the Men of Death.” Thus, one could argue that Chandler was particularly amenable to “Dr. Lovell’s” recommendations and approach to healthy living: healthy living could cure cancer and epilepsy, let alone common colds and weight issues. Lovell was the worst kind of quack in that his knowledge was half sound, half unfounded, for example,  masturbation and homosexuality e.g. led to insanity. All sorts of new machines for soothing the nerves, ultraviolet light, etc.

The late great architectural historian David Gebhard: “Through his column, ‘Care of the Body,’ and his Dr. Philip M. Lovell Physical Culture Center (on 12th Street, 1927), Lovell had an influence that went far beyond the body. He was, and he wished to be considered, progressive, whether in physical culture, permissive Dewey education, or architecture.“

INTERTWINED AGENDAS of architectsand client

  1. All three (2 architects, 1 client) are immigrants and outsiders

Like the newly emerging Hollywood stars of the twenties, much of Saperstein/Lovell’s big life was public. His home life, or at least the image of it, broadcast his message as much as his writings and professional life: his house therefore had to be an expression of how he wished himself to be seen.

 House as Persona in History
In 16th century Venice, a house façade married individual prestige to the degree of an owner’s artistic discernment (seen in the owner’s choice of artist),[1] just as his beach and city’s houses portray Lovell and Southern California’s prominence. Wealthy owners of houses commanding prominent sites along the canals chose between ornate marble (more costly and potentially too daringly sumptuous for civic decorum) and figurative frescoes done in brilliant colours of paint that in turn would be reflected in the water of the canal (apparently more modest because of its lower cost, but also flashier and “more socially aggressive.”) Both treatments required a delicate balance in how one faced the city; in the case of a painted domestic façade, it also relied on Renaissance art theory: since the house was a work of art, its design ought to be based on the study of nature per Alberti and Serlio, as historian Monika Schmitter has pointed out. “It is in this sense that the house is a portrait, a built body that imitates the natural body.” [emphasis added]. Thus, it was extremely important that the built body accurately represent the owner. So in the case of one up-and-coming merchant, images of abundance—grapes and grains, Bacchus flanked by Apollo and Minerva—not only depict the owner as a prosperous “sophisticated bon vivant,” but the flourishing city of Venice as well, she observes.[2]

An Essential Difference
While Saperstein/Lovell and Neutra had equally compelling agendas for their version of Modernism — architecture as a tool for demonstrating the self, for S/L – whereas Neutra’s agenda was to demonstrate how prefabrication and commercial technologies could propel good health, it seems to me that Schindler’s agenda was architecture itself, that for all its Modernity, it was fully steeped in architectural history and tradition.

Both use staircases to great effect, Schindler’s akin to a grand Baroque processional but very modern in their frank expression of the narrative of function, one function ceremonial and formal, the other pragmatic and for fast access.  While Schindler’s stairs, responding to a very limited site, are closely held against the torso of the house, Neutra’s much larger site allows him to orient the stairs perpendicular to the house. Schindler’s fireplace is outdoors, romantic; Neutra’s are indoors and are not expressed on the exterior. Schindler’s house is far more methodical, rhythmic, and balanced, while Neutra’s upper floor is a rabbit warren of wandering spaces, while the famous ground floor is the opposite in flowing interconnected space and sophisticated transitions.

Because we no longer need to be afraid of the elements, housed in a “timid shelter” whose décor evokes warmth and safety, architecture can assume “a more sublime and abstract nature.” This is a very material, physical building which asks us to transcend the material. The Beach House directly embodies Schindler’s 1913 manifesto in which he states, “Modern man no longer pays attention to construction,” yet of course, the way he designed the construction allows this very freedom from attention.

Schindler wrote, “The structural equations required by municipal code officials make the formal guarantee of stability superfluous. Construction has lost its interest.” Chilling thought. In any case, that frees architecture to be concerned with more intellectual problems that are simultaneously more sensual, more devoted to the subtle workings of our cognitive senses, of rhythm, proportion, balance.

Both believed in engaging Nature, one more as a science to be studied, the other to experience its romance. It was the privilege of the civilized man to no longer fear of the elements but coexist with them. Both trace the need for a contemporary architecture based on its ability to evoke a specific sentiment or frame of mind. A haptic architecture, related to the senses. As Harry Francis Mallgrave says, “the comfort of the dwelling no longer resides in its formal development but in the possibility of controlling within its confines light, air and temperature.”

In contrast to Neutra, Schindler did and tellingly attend Otto Wagner’s master class in the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts; Neutra attended Austria’s version of the Technical University; both attended Loos’s private seminars and informal teaching at a table at the Museum Café held Saturday evenings

Timeline

. 1920s Pauline Schindler assists Leah Lovell in day care under Barnsdall patronage.
. Schindler and Lovell discuss house in 1922, schematic design
. Lovell begins writing for the LA Times June 29, 1924, Lovell writes column called “Building Homes for Health.”
. Saperstein/Lovell’s patron, Harry Chandler, moved to LA for his health after almost dying from severe pneumonia from New Hampshire. LA Times became nation’s leading paper in advertising revenue for three straight years in the 1920s.
.  1924 Wright and Barnsdall part ways.
. 1924 Schindler designs the Lovell Mountain House in Wrightwood. Celotex – wood fibreboard, snow, soggy, collapsed.
. 1925 The Lovell Farmhouse, Fallbrook – burned down.

HOUSE FACTS  / TECTONICS
Similarities

  1. They both have a lot of permeable membranes for immediate contact with the outdoors.
  2. they both were programmed for four bedrooms (Schindler) and four discreet or merged sleeping porches
  3. they both feature dramatic double height spaces and broad expanses of glass.
  4. they both respond thoughtfully to eccentric sites.
  5. both architects use the staircases to great effect.
  6. both respond athletically to a virtually identical program.
  7. Both individually underestimate the power of climate: Neutra’s master bedroom is located on the southwest with no overhang, Schindler overestimated even for Lovell the need to enclose the nude sleeping porches on the north.
  8. Colors
  9. Both complex structurally
  10. Both are lifted into space, both are discussions of solid and void.

Differences
One is surface, skin, cladding, light-weight, more finely finished, tight tolerances; as Wright said, trying to be rude, “cheap and thin,” more elaborate, more agitated, exaggerated in its asymmetry.

One is monolithic, earthy, solid, evenly balanced except for the Baroque flourish of the stairs. Reinforced concrete with steel only used in tension to pull the concrete frames together. Schindler wouldn’t permit steel windows.  Massive, immovable, like the pyramids. While Neutra’s balconies are suspended, Schindler’s project like his chin.

Neutra’s module is commercially based: three steel casement windows ganged together, around 5 feet. Schindler based his module on 48”, a paradigm of American wood construction.

STAIRS
Schindler’s majestic center staircase rises to the main floor,  while in Neutra’s building in which one crosses a moat and goes down to reach the piano nobile, a upturning the Classical paradigm. Neutra does force the processor, the person, to turn 180 degrees twice but those turns are internal and relatively languid, he has the room on the site to do so. In the Beach House they are external, far more physical, far more body-like, relating to the tight site by being drawn up into the torso of the house. This type of stair, immediately adjacent and parallel to the body of the house, has a long tradition in architectural history – Schinkel’s Charlottenhof, Gardener’s Cottage, Potsdam, 1829. Schinkel was one of Mies’s chosen influences; Mies used a parallel stair at the 1929 Barcelona Pavilion, of course three years after the Beach House.

Neutra did the garden scheme for the LBH!!

SUSPENSION – Lovell Health House – suspended balconies; Lovell Beach House, suspended walls.

FACTS
LOVELL BEACH HOUSE  Date: 1922 / 26
58’-8” x 27’ – 6”
Symmetrical distribution of concrete piers at 12’ oc with 4’- 4” overhang north and south

Site = LBH small sand lot, beach property

Technology– five reinforced concrete frames for compression load, lateral assumed through “extensive use of steel tension members.

Walls 2” thick suspended between concrete frames from wood joists. No compression members except for concrete frames.

Regional response – house lifted on stilts like those around it, substituting concrete piles for wood piles.

Item of Note: Parapet walls project beyond sash to protect from water intrusion, something like Mies van der Rohe’s technique on the Turgendhat House completed four years later. Schindler’s move eliminated the sills.

Materials

  1. To assure uniformity of scale, all woodwork, including concrete formwork, 8” Oregon pine wood planks used.
  2. Medium rough concrete stained a sand color
  3. Plaster natural white
  4. Wood stained sand color
  5. Textiles terra cotta red
  6. sleeping porches north (enclosed two years later)
  7. four bedrooms, all exactly the same

LOVELL HEALTH HOUSE

Lovell Health House 78’ – 9” x 42’ – 0” basic plan. Projecting elements created overall package measuring 130’x 42’.

Not a Regional response

Site steep hill and ravine, urban .

  1. spacing 5’-1.5” inches based on triple casement window and 4” steel column
  2. four sleeping porches, one narrow on the south for sunbathing.
  3. large site included visually connected garage/studio
  4. all parts of light steel css shop fabricated and transported to site.

Leah’s kindergarten was next to the pool, ground floor.

Lovell’s CONFLICTED NOTIONS OF SEXUALITY 2X A MONTH MAX. Yeesh. Good god. No wonder … 

[1] Monika Schmitter, “Odoni’s Façade: The House as Portrait in Renaissance Venice,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 66, No. 3, September 2007, 400. Ms. Schmitter includes the quote that was a summary of Morosini’s treatise by Margaret L. King in Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 148. Notably, according to Venetian mythology, the city’s early settlers fixed by law that all houses should be “equal, alike, of similar size and ornamentation.” Footnote p. 312, No. 61.  Obviously, this democratic sensibility changed.

[2] Ibid., Footnote 6, p. 308; text p. 305.

 

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