Art: New Shells

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In residential architecture, Neutra's own faith boils down to two main aims: ¶ Spaciousness and compactness combined. Lots of glass and livable porches or patios custom-tailored to the landscape make all outdoors seem like part of the house. Drawing and dining rooms are merged into one low, wide and handsome living area, comfortably lined with built-in furniture. But cellars and attics are eliminated, kitchens made smaller and handier, to cut construction costs, heating bills and housekeeping chores. ¶Honest, "functional" good looks. Genuinely modern modern homes are designed for the use and enjoyment of the family inside, not to impress the neighbors. Their beauty, like that of any sea shell, is more than skin-deep—practical, not pretentious. Instead of concealing the purposes and techniques of the construction, it accentuates them. Gingerbread details and fussy panelings are sheared away. One can tell at a glance what the house is made of and how it was put together.*

Yachts v. Cliffs. Though no two U.S. architects might agree on the way to say it, those two principles are the common denominators of what the modernists are up to. In Europe after World War I, such topflight architects as Germany's Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe and Walter Gropius, and Switzerland's Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) evolved the "International" style—strict and angular, making fullest possible use of steel, glass and concrete (for maximum light and openness). Le Corbusier's slogan: "The house is a machine for living." Van Der Rohe and Gropius have since set up shop in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the late great Chicago skyscraper-builder, Louis Sullivan, and his famed pupil, Frank Lloyd Wright, had been marking out an architecturally warmer style of their own. To Wright and his followers, the severity of the International style is anathema. (Some of Wright's choice epithets for it: "Dead Sea fruit"; "the flat-bosomed façade"; "the whited sepulchre.")

The average American has a hard time telling the two styles apart. Main difference to the casual eye: International houses, with their blinding rectangles of glass and steel and concrete, outside stairways and rooftop sundecks, are apt to look a little like stranded yachts; Wright's houses, using whatever native materials seem best, generally hug the surrounding landscape, sometimes manage to achieve the look of an inhabited cliff that has stood there forever.

Rain in the Desert. Neutra's own career has taken him through the 'International style to the outskirts of Wright's camp. After growing up in Vienna he first decided to be an architect, he says, when, at eight, he took a ride on the new Vienna subway and saw what a builder could do. Neutra made his way to the U.S. in 1923. At the funeral of Louis Sullivan, the unknown Neutra presented himself to the world-famous Wright, then squatted on the master's doorstep until Wright took him in for a three-month stay.

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