Art: New Shells

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"CowShed Modern." Mr. B., a Los Angeles stockbroker, and his family are more typical of Neutra's clients. The B.s lived in a conventional house, furnished with antiques and larger than they needed, since their 21-year-old son was away at college most of the time. A year ago they decided to build something small and modern on a steep lot in the hills near Coldwater Canyon. Mr. B. was afraid of getting what he described as "cowshed modern," so they called the best man they knew of, Neutra. They were afraid he might not be interested in such a small project, but as it happened, Neutra was.

"I want your husband and son to come and see me too," Neutra told Mrs. B. on the phone. "You know this house is to be for every one of you." After the first get-acquainted conference in the "lakeview room" of Neutra's own wide-windowed house (where the architect lounged against the pillows of a deep-seated couch and his visitors were made comfortable in plainly modern chairs of Neutra's own design), he asked all three members of the family to write him a detailed account of their activities for an entire week.

Till Judgment Day. From the diaries and from subsequent interviews Neutra gleaned a hundred details about their tastes and way of life, some of which he was able to provide for in his design. On their side the B.s learned something of Neutra's philosophy of architecture.

He objects to the old "machine-for-living" slogan. "I try to make a house like a flower pot, in which you can root something and out of which family life will bloom," he tells his clients. "It's not so much a question of ornamenting the flower pot as of fabricating it in such a way that something healthy and beautiful can grow in and out of it. The overall design should be simple, but it depends on neat execution. I want every house I build to be a stepping stone to the future, and modern architecture gets a black eye if it's not backed by minute structural documentation." (Neutra has been known to provide up to 150 blueprint pages for a single two-bedroom house.)

"The designer may never be found out until the day of judgment," Neutra goes on, "but if he supplies his victims with a daily round of tiny or coarse irritations, unwittingly or not, he's a menace. It's the little sore we overlook which later proves malignant. To be used to having a telephone pole in front of your view window does not make it wholesome. Bad acoustics can lead to shouting, and this calls forth an argumentative mood."

When the B.s shyly inquired about costs, Neutra made a rough guess that their house would come to $16,000 (it grew to $19,500, not including patio, garden and subsequent extras, but Neutra based his 10% fee on the lower figure).

The B.s were not worried about the investment. The resale value of Neutra houses has been demonstrated time & again. Real-estate agents never fail to insert the words "Neutra House" when they advertise one for sale. Says Neutra: "I consider myself literally conservative, dependable over the amortization period."

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