Built InAt the Neutra VDL House
The house is a productive framework for the exhibition, providing a series of platforms and levels, limits and mirrors, open spaces and botanical entanglements that invite new ways of thinking and making.
There is something distinctly satisfying about the concept of the built in: an object or item of furniture embedded within the architecture of a home. The built in represents efficiency, integrity, necessity – the possibility of a domestic addition that emerges as a natural outgrowth of a building, and may just as freely recede back into it. By definition unobtrusive yet playfully performative, the built in makes itself known in rhythms of tactility: the slot and click of a translucent paper screen, the pneumatic whoosh of a wall-installed couch, the tap and purr of a panel that reveals a parallel universe of storage space.
The title of the exhibition, Built In, at the Neutra VDL House reveals the slippery physicality of the term, oscillating between action and object, concept and sensation. Organised by artist Erik Benjamins alongside Heidi Korsavong and Benjamin Critton of the art and design gallery Marta, Built In presents new work by 32 Los Angeles creative practitioners, each responding to the peculiar qualities, constraints, and opportunities of the VDL House – originally built as the family home and studio of the modernist architect Richard Neutra.
The house is a productive framework for the exhibition, providing a series of platforms and levels, limits and mirrors, open spaces and botanical entanglements that invite new ways of thinking and making. Pause on the sidewalk to observe the non-human audience drawn to Terremoto’s cast concrete water bowls; the sound of a fountain by Charlap Hyman & Herrero issues from an upper level, and as you walk under the cartoonish ceramic house numbers – PapiBoyBabyBoy’s flip on the ubiquitous “Neutra numbers” – it’s clear that there’s no dominant tone to the exhibition. Before even crossing the threshold, you are met with sincerity, with irony, a call to healing, a call to brokenness – everything is bounded, enmeshed, built in together.
Under the cantilevered stairway, a newly disclosed tokonoma alcove holds a chrome-yellow ikebana arrangement by Kyoko Oshiro, arranged in a vessel sourced from a cupboard drawer. On a shelf in the kitchen, restauranteurs Mina Park & Kwang Uh have placed a procession of failed ferments, and a beautiful Buddhist prayer reminds us to rid the mind of desire and greed. An anachronistic La-Z-Boy™ reupholstered by L.A. Door promises engulfing comfort, ceramics by Candice Romanelli are embossed with Dodgers baseball motifs, and the hand-written dedications of each book in the library are reproduced in an elegant folio by New Documents.
Carefully examine the Neutra-designed table and chairs on the second-floor patio – they’re replicas, artist Fiona Connor is living with the originals. Open a bedroom wardrobe to discover a collection of VDL-styled leisure uniforms by Nancy Stella Soto, and recline in the rooftop solarium, gently refreshed by a mid-century styled terracotta cooling system by Emma T. Price. In the bathrooms, carbuncular sandstone toothbrush holders by Hall Mack are hidden behind sleek chrome panels; the perforations in the stone emit a chaparral-sourced scent by The Institute for Art and Olfaction – a detail of delight and absurdity which stretches the premise of built-in “necessity” to breaking point.
Each new work – and the house is replete with these discoveries – holds its own conceptual substructure, compressed momentarily into matter and expanding outward to test our capacity for cerebral and sensorial information. As a moment of respite – a way of honoring the silent integrity of the building – the third-floor roof terrace remains open and unprogrammed. Here, we witness the context into which the house is built. The canopy of palms, eucalyptus, and camphors; the ribbon of traffic on Silver Lake Boulevard. The broad blue of the reservoir; the collapsible structures stacked and strung across the hillside beyond.
When the VDL House was first constructed in the early 1930s, the reservoir was just a few feet from the front door. Back then, the third-floor roof terrace was a latent level in the mind of the architect – it was added when the house was rebuilt after a catastrophic fire in 1963. The site had always been intended for experimentation – a place where Neutra could test his ideas about architecture’s relationship to biological and psychological wellbeing – and the process of rebuilding became an opportunity to realign the house with its inhabitants. Fitting within the original footprint, the recalibrated design was a response to three decades of ingrained habits and observations; the reframing of views to suit a changing neighbourhood, the application of new technologies for solar protection, the preference for breakfast served on a balcony, the desire for a stairway suspended in air.
The new iteration of the house was an exercise in “survival through design” – the proleptic title of Neutra’s collection of essays published in 1953; built for experiment, the house is inherently capacious and open to its own evolution. Likewise, Built In is a proposition for what survival might look like beyond the myth of fixity. The legacy of modernism turns and reverberates as dominant cultures undergo their own deconstruction; the house, as host, is treated with generosity and respect by its guests, in dialogue with its dreams and responsive to its limits. In this way, the presence of the architect, his family, the flesh and physics of memory, are relocated, live, within contemporary consciousness.
Built In is not a fixture. It is seen, it recedes. It is cerebrally complex and sensorially immediate. It clicks.
- words : Matilda Bathurst
- photos: Rich Stapleton