Raymond Neutra

Physician - Environmental Epidemiologist - Retired Doctor of Public Health - President at Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design - Last son of Richard and Dione Neutra

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Which of these terms best describes your relationship to Los Angeles: point of origin, detour, or destination?

Point of origin.

What year does your relationship with Los Angeles begin?

On March 12th, 1939. I was born 12 years after my next brother Dion. After World War II there was a tremendous amount of construction activity that my father was involved in. My parents had the money to send me off to boarding school and I spent four years at the Chadwick School in Palos Verdes, coming back for vacations and during the summer. Then I went to the Happy Valley School in Ojai, California, which was co-founded by Rosalind Rajagopal, a former client of my father. So in some ways, I was a visitor to my hometown.

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Can you describe your first house or apartment of significance in Los Angeles? What was the street? Who were the neighbors?

I grew up at 2300 Silver Lake Boulevard, in the Neutra studio and residences. It's commonly called the VDL House after Cees H. Van der Leeuw, one of my father's patrons. The house is on a 60-by-70 foot lot between Silver Lake Boulevard and Edgewater Terrace. On both sides of me were traditional little contractor-built houses with a perimeter of grass but our compound was built out to the limits of the lot and enclosed two patios. It was built in stages. The first stage was 1932 and the next stage in 1939, when I was born. In 1963, the 1932 wing burned down and was rebuilt over a couple of years and completed around 1966. By the time of the fire, I was off in medical school in Montreal, Canada. So I never lived in that later iteration.

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People seldom picture children growing up in Neutra buildings. What was the experience of the VDL House from a kid's perspective?

So many of my memories are kinetic memories. This place was designed to be very flexible and to accommodate up to three separate households as well as an office. It was designed with many exits so people from different activities could come and go without interfering with each other. So there were lots of devices to open the inside to the outside. As a kid, pushing open the folding garage doors on the upper floor living room out to a balcony and folding the leaves off to one side. And leaving them open during a gentle rain so that I could hear the rain falling outside from inside or down in the playroom next to Edgewater Terrace. Or whacking my hip against the garage door that opened onto a hedge that separated the room from the little-traveled Edgewater Terrace making it like opening up to a little jungle. Or leaning my weight against the heavy glass and steel sliding doors between the living room of the lower wing into an internal patio. There were all these moving things that left a kinesthetic impression in my mind as a kid.

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Almost like the house itself was a toy that a kid could play with to see how it would react.

When I got to be about 10, I would take visitors through the house and show them all these things. It was a demonstration house that intended to say: you don't have to be like these little houses next to it. You can create many spaces and many connections to the indoors and outdoors, even on a 60-by-70 foot lot. I was very proud of what my dad had done and loved demonstrating it to people. There were always people showing up at the door and saying, “I've just come in from Argentina. Could I see the house?” Or, “I've just come in from Iran, could I just peek inside?” So that was part of my childhood.

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When the city was new to you, where did you go for fun? What were your rituals?

There weren't that many kids in the neighborhood, so I didn't have a lot of friends nearby. I was a pretty studious kid so I remember going back and forth to a little library that was on Glendale Boulevard near where the freeway meets it. I remember going back and forth with a pile of books. The city sold it and now it's some other kind of structure.

What song or piece of music do you associate with the neighborhood where you grew up?

Brahms’s "Feldeinsamkeit." My mother sang and wrote and performed her own arrangements for cello accompaniment. Every Sunday, she had a few hours in which my dad was forbidden to interrupt her. The piano was in the living room of the lower wing and I would sit under it and read the comics or draw while she would sing lieder by Brahms, Schubert, and Mahler, or play her cello and sing Swiss folk songs. There’s a newly digitized copy of a record that she made in the early sixties of her singing Brahms, Schubert, and the Swiss songs she grew up hearing as a kid.

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When you first ventured into the city beyond your immediate environs, what were the places that made an impression? Who showed you these places?

I remember my parents taking me to concerts and art exhibits and avant-garde movie showings. They took me to Plummer Park to see an experimental film and we ran into Rudolph Schindler there. We were both coming out of the show and my parents said hello to him and he said hello back. I must have been told it was Schindler. The only other time I met Schindler was at Cedars of Lebanon when the two of them coincidentally ended up in the same room. Schindler with cancer and my dad with his second heart attack. Schindler was already there when they wheeled my father in.

Completely coincidental?

Completely coincidental. I talked to Schindler's daughter-in-law a few years ago and she said that she asked Schindler, “Well, do you want me to move you to another room?” And he said, “No, no, that's all right.” My father had no animosity towards Schindler. It was Schindler who had harbored an animosity to my father. So they exchanged memories of their student days in Vienna and ultimately had a nice time together. A few months later, Schindler died.

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When radio mattered in Los Angeles, what program, station, or announcer did you love?

John Nesbit was a family friend who had a program called The Passing Parade with interesting stories, a little bit like Radio Lab today. My father built a beautiful house for him in 1940 in Brentwood. When my mother made a record of her music, the first track was an introduction by John Nesbit. You can hear his wonderful radio voice there. And then, I don't know the station letters, but when I was in junior high, rock and roll was just starting and I used to listen to that.

Did your parents disapprove of pop music or were they able to appreciate some of it?

Vague disapproval, I would say (laughs).

Describe your first, favorite, or most memorable car.

Up until I was about 10, my family never had a new car. Then, in 1949, my father had a heart attack and the medical advice at that time was not to exercise and to stop driving. So he bought a gray Nash Airflyte because one of the front seats could fold down flat and you could sleep on it. I remember going to the dealer and my father bargaining with the guy to get the price down. From that point on, my mother drove and he would recline against the backseat with his legs stretched out forward into the front. I would sit in the other backseat if I went along with them. My mother would be driving and my father would be sitting with a folder with lots of papers dealing with the correspondence while I looked out the window.

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Describe the restaurant in which you've spent the most hours.

We didn't go out to restaurants very much but I remember Clifton's downtown. There was a Christ figure down in the basement with the apostles and I think there was a little waterfall in there.

Your parents didn't find Clifton's tacky?

No, they thought it was fun.

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What outdoor space in Los Angeles have you spent the most time?

After my mom finished singing on Sundays, my parents would usually walk around Elysian Park, so I remember walking around there, on the paths above what is now Dodger Stadium. That was the location where my dad and Bob Alexander designed a public housing project that was never built. The people who had been living there were forcibly removed with the promise that they could live in this new project. The whole thing was stopped as creeping socialism and they were left hanging. Ultimately the city sold the land that they had expropriated to the Dodger Stadium people.

So your parents would walk on the site that was proposed for the never-built Elysian Park Heights project?

It wasn't on the site per se but on the hills above it. There are trails there that we used to walk on.

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Within your family, do you remember conversations, remarks, or reactions regarding the battles over Chavez Ravine?

I would've been about 10 years old at that point. I remember when it all unraveled, when Frank Wilkinson took the Fifth. Frank was a friend of the family and in the early Forties, he and his wife Jean had lived on the top floor of the Neutra compound. I remember them and their baby up there, when I was a toddler. We felt a lot of sympathy for how he was treated. We kept in touch with him throughout his life.

Did your family ever go to Dodger Stadium or did the stadium represent something awful to your parents?

They were outraged at what had happened. They were not sports fans. And to this day, I'm not a particular sports fan. I'll watch the World Cup or the final games of football, basketball, and baseball. But I don't know whether I've ever been to a professional baseball game.

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Whether or not you swam, what beach or pool lingers in your memory?

There was a thing called Bimini Plunge. As I recall, it was really big and it was all indoors. At one point I joined something called Larry's Boys Club, so either my mother took me there or we went with Larry's Boys Club.

What movie theater would you bring back from the dead?

When I had started driving myself, I would go to a movie theater in Hollywood that showed art films. It was where I saw first runs of Ingmar Bergman films. It was on a thoroughfare that runs north and south but I can't remember which one it was. I remember taking our my girlfriend from boarding school in Ojai, who was down for a visit. She was the daughter of the artist Channing Peake. We went to a big drug store to get a soda or something like that and there was a shooting in the drug store when we were there. Somebody shot his girlfriend who was behind the counter while we were in the store. He ran out and the police came and it was a big, a big deal. That made a big impression on me. We never made it to the movie.

Can you describe a bar or nightclub you loved that no longer exists?

I can’t. It doesn't apply. (laughs)

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What household threw the best parties or the parties that you remember best?

My mother and father were immigrants and they had dinner parties which were partially to build their network. Between 1939 and 1963, when the fire happened, my mother kept a list of everybody who came to dinner and what they were served and what she sang to them, because she was a musician. We never sat around a table. Everyone sat on chairs and couches with trays in their laps. The trays were passed through a pass-through from the kitchen. As I got old enough, I would sit in as a kid with my own little Neutra-designed tray. The visitors would be people like Alvar Aalto and Roberto Burle Marx, the Brazilian landscape architect. There were all kinds of people in the arts from Los Angeles, like Ray and Charles Eames, mixed in with some family friends. So I was exposed to a lot of high energy people who had purposeful lives. That made a big impression about what a life could be.

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What was your first earthquake or worst earthquake?

I wasn’t here for any of the big earthquakes but the VDL House has gone through a number of them without issue. My father’s Fine Arts Building at California State University, Northridge, was damaged by the Northridge quake and torn down. Interestingly, there's an identical one at Cal State Hayward, which survived the Loma Prieta without any problem. But the Loma Prieta quake wasn't on the nearby Hayward fault. When the big one happens, we'll see how it does.

If you had the power to preserve a space or building in Los Angeles, what would you protect? Not necessarily for the public good but for personal reasons.

Well it's my job to protect three of them through the Institute for Survival Through Design. My brother Dion left us three Neutra-designed buildings in Silver Lake of which the institute has stewardship. One of them is the Reunion House apartment where Dion lived in 1949. Then there's the Neutra office and apartments on Glendale Boulevard. And then next to Reunion House is the Treetops Duplex that my brother designed in 1982. He left those three buildings to the institute on his death and asked me to take over. We are trying to preserve them but also use them to stimulate conversations about apartment design typology. So if you drive by 2379 Glendale Boulevard in the front window you'll see three QR codes and if you flash your smartphone to one of them, you'll get a little three minute tour of the back apartment that we restored explaining the tactics to let natural light in and what we know about how natural light affects your circadian rhythms and other aspects of your wellbeing. That apartment was designed to either be commercial or residential and has been both over its 70-year lifespan, which is relevant to the question of all of vacant office spaces that we have in the face of the big housing crisis.

Conversely, what’s a building or feature you would tear down?

Other than Dodger Stadium?

Besides the traffic, what’s one specific change you've observed in Los Angeles over the period you’ve known it?

The air pollution has gotten better since I was a kid. I remember when the word smog was invented. By the time I was in college in the 1950s, it was really terrible. Despite the increased number of cars, we've had some success in lowering the air pollution.

Conversely, what’s one thing that hasn't changed—in other words, one thing in Los Angeles that is timeless?

The Santa Monica Mountains. The ranges and the ocean still sit together in this wonderful setting. You still have mountain lions traveling across the Santa Monicas.

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What is a place in Los Angeles that was described to you but you never got to see for yourself? In other words, a place that lives only in your imagination?

The Millard House is a beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright work in Pasadena that I've never seen in person.

What demolition broke your heart?

The destruction of the Von Sternberg house in 1972, which was completely unnecessary. That was a really special building that should have been saved.

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Whose backyard you would return to if you could?

It's not a backyard exactly but there's a series of photos taken outside the Lovell house and in some of the photographs, there's a little boy next to the pool. That's me. In 1949, my dad knew that a Swiss publisher was going to do a series of books on his work and he got Julius Shulman to go back and re-photograph some of the earlier buildings. I was taken along on those trips to help push the owner's furniture out of the frame and put Neutra furniture there and hold eucalyptus branches where there wasn't any vegetation and stuff like that. And I'd get to look under the black cloth at what Julius was composing.

The Lovell house is an emblem of the positive effects of natural light on health, which is central to your work.

Yes. My dad was really lucky to have that assignment so early. Of course, he was nearly 40 by the time it was built but it was still early in his career.

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What is the current view out your window or a view that you see on a daily basis?

My wife Peggy Bauhaus and I live in a little two bedroom apartment in a continuing care retirement community of about 150 people in near Monterey, California. I'm in the back bedroom here where guests can sleep on a fold out couch when they come to stay. I work back here and I have a sliding door that looks out to a little patio with some flowering bushes. Up a little incline, there's a path between a couple of the cottages. So we have this little space to ourselves and it's quiet and faces east and the sun comes in the morning and it’s a nice cheerful place. Both Peggy and I had previous spouses who we cared for when they died. I'm about to turn 84 and we figured we wanted to be in a place where we could have some support. So that's why we're here. We’re very lucky because we're right near Monterey Bay and the Asilomar Preserve and the Pacific. It's a great place to be.

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Can you describe a personal memento of Los Angeles—a token of the city you’ve kept in the form of an image or an object?

I'm in my office looking at a wall with two things on it that remind me of L.A. One of them is a watercolor that my late wife did of the architect Raphael Soriano, who we became very fond of when he lived up in Tiburon. The other is a signed Julius Shulman photograph of my dad sitting on top of the roof of the 1966 version of the VDL studio residence, looking out over the rooftop reflecting pool. They remind me of people and places. ◆

IMAGES[1] Raymond Neutra's dresser, Pacific Grove, CA 2023 (Raymond Neutra)[2] Dion, Raymond, Richard, Frank, and Dione Neutra at home ca. 1950 (Neutra Institute)[3] Richard Neutra at the VDL House photographed by Julius Shulman, 1966 (Getty Research Institute)[4] Garden Room at the VDL House photographed in color by Julius Shulman, 1958 (Getty Research Institute)[5] Old Edendale Branch Library building, 2030 Glendale Blvd, photographed in 2023 (Sam Sweet)[6] Dione Neutra, "An Unusual Program Of Songs" LP, private pressing, 1964[7] Cedars of Lebanon, Hollywood, CA, 1935 (LAPL)[8] Promotional photograph for the Nash Airflyte, ca. 1949[9] Postcard for Clifton's Cafeteria (All Night Menu)[10] The road into Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles, CA, 1946 (UCLA)[11] Postcard for Bimini Baths near 3rd and Vermont, Los Angeles, CA, ca 1920s (All Night Menu)[12] Richard Neutra sketch of Dione Neutra and Raymond Neutra playing guitar, 1957 (UCLA)[13] Upper living room at the VDL House photographed by Julius Shulman, 1940 (Getty Research Institute)[14] Frank Lloyd Wright's Millard House, Pasadena, CA (Wikiarquitectura)[15] Neutra house for Josef Von Sternberg in Northridge, CA, photographed by Julius Shulman in 1947 (Getty Research Institute) [16] Raymond Neutra, age 11, photographed by Julius Shulman at the Lovell Health House, 1950 (Getty Research Institute)[17] Pacific Grove, California, photographed by Raymond Neutra, 2023 (Raymond Neutra)