Art: New Shells

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The young Viennese architect named his eldest son Frank L. Neutra, but when he moved on to California (he kept remembering the travel poster he had seen years before, in Switzerland: CALIFORNIA CALLS YOU), he struck out for himself in the International tradition. He quickly saw the architectural possibilities in industrial products, e.g., plywood and sheet metal, and he designed one of the first steel-frame residences in the U.S. By the '40s he had come into his own as one of the world's half-dozen top modern architects.

His creations ranged from lavish jobs for plutocrats, like the moated desert residence for Cinemogul Josef von Sternberg (the patio piped for artificial rain), to cleanly simple defense housing (at a cost of $2.600 per unit) near the San Pedro shipyards. Like other U.S. moderns, Neutra has more & more followed Wright's lead in using warm-colored woods, bricks and rough-hewn stone; in breaking the severe verticals and horizontals of International with an occasional diagonal roofline, landscaped terraces and complicated softening patterns of light & shade.

Biggest project on his drawing boards last week was the Sanatorio Universitario Italiano to be built by the Italian government in the Alps north of Milan. It will include sanatorium facilities for 300 student-patients, plus a theater, library, recreation lounges, a residential neighborhood for employees, a shopping center, two small hotels and a church for which the Archbishop of Milan has created a new parish. Other Neutra projects range all the way from an $800 alteration job to a $175,000 residence in Tulsa, Okla., and a new community housing development in Los Angeles.

Away with Antiques. Neutra's standards are still too severe for some tastes. One young couple who eventually sold their Neutra house (at a handsome profit) explained their feelings this way: "We were crazy about it at first, it was so pristine, so exquisite. But the truth is, we couldn't live up to it. The place went to pot so quickly—nothing can look more shabby than shabby modern. The kids' fingermarks just didn't look right on the walls, and since there were no door frames the plaster around the doors got bruised."

Neutra wanted to design furniture to go with the house and have it custom-built, but the couple could not afford that, so they compromised on half modern, half hand-me-downs. To Neutra, this was a sad heresy. He walked in one day, spotted a French provincial chair with a quilted slipcover, tapped it disdainfully with his cane and announced: "Unconvincing!"

The unhappy pair had some fine old silver of which they were particularly proud, and wanted a sideboard on which to display it, but Neutra said no, sideboards were "bourgeois." They had no mantelpiece either—Neutra frowned on mantels. At last one day their little boy came and said: "Ma, why can't we live in a regular house?" That helped them decide. They moved to a farm.

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