Marmol Radziner + Associates reinvigorates a vintage Neutra house in the Hollywood Hills.
Henry Urbach -- Interior Design, 7/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
When Richard Neutra left his native Austria for the United States in 1923, he could not have anticipated the lasting effect his work would have on the history of American modernism. The architect's reputation rests primarily on more than two dozen built residences, apartment buildings, and public structures executed mostly in and around Los Angeles. Neutra's American work represents a modernism that gestures towards a temperate climate, landscape views, and such quintessentially American preoccupations as leisure, sport, and the automobile.
The Lew House, named for its original owners, was built in 1958 in the hills just above Sunset Boulevard on a small, steeply sloping lot. The house was recently purchased by a film producer, who commissioned Marmol Radziner + Associates to renovate and upgrade the structure. The Santa Monica-based firm has established a reputation in recent years for dealing sensitively with historic modernist buildings; among their best known restoration projects is Neutra's Kaufmann house in Palm Springs, built in 1946. The firm has also restored the Loewy House (1947), designed by Albert Frey, and is currently at work on Frank Lloyd Wright's Millard House (1923) in Pasadena, and the immeasurably important Kings Road House (1922–23) by Rudolf Schindler. According to Leo Marmol, "we have a great interest in and affinity towards these designers and this era. We embrace many of their fundamental design attitudes ourselves, especially the intertwining of interior and exterior space, which is really appropriate to the Los Angeles environment."
The 2,000-sq.-ft. house comprises two floors, with a carport and entrance on the upper street level and a planted lot that falls away precipitously to the rear. The original plan positioned living and dining areas and the master bedroom on the upper level, and a large child's play area on the lower floor. Among Marmol and Radziner's primary moves was to reconsider this arrangement and locate the master bedroom on the lower level, with a study/guest room adjoining the larger public areas above.
In Neutra's design, the relation of front to back was organized as a dialogue between a more private street façade and a rear elevation that opens to light and views that reach down the canyon towards downtown Los Angeles. Clerestory windows mark the front elevation while the back consists of long bands of steel and glass casement windows and cantilevered decks on both levels. Among the most distinctive features of the house is a carport that penetrates into the building volume and is exposed, with large glass panes, to the living room. Celebrating the image and presence of the automobile, this carport had been covered up in an earlier renovation, and the designers took the opportunity to restore it to its original condition. One striking spatial effect of this element is that the house functions as a kind of viewing device, allowing the (intrepid) passerby to look, from the street, directly through the carport wall into the living space and landscape beyond.
"The house was in relatively good condition compared to many of the restorations we do," says Marmol. "It was pretty much intact, so we were in a position to restore most of the original materials, including the exterior surfaces which we were able to refinish and give a new luster." The exterior—wood siding, glass windows, decking, railing, and roof—was refurbished with specific consideration for historical accuracy, and a window in the study, also covered during a subsequent renovation, was opened up again. Panes of tempered glass replaced the few remaining untempered panes. The interiors, by contrast, had been altered by successive owners, and Marmol and Radziner made decisions either to restore, replace, or rethink interior elements as appropriate. "This is not what we consider an academic restoration," adds Ron Radziner. "We restored the house in spirit, but definitely brought it into the current era."
Contemporary features of the renovation include a completely new kitchen with contemporary appliances, stained birch plywood cabinetry, and stone countertops, all of which were built, according to the designers, "in the spirit of Neutra." At the client's request, Marmol and Radziner added a new, corner fireplace to the master bedroom. The fireplace incorporates raised hearth seating and integral bookshelves. The new chimney does not affect the upper level as it is hidden within an existing closet. White plaster walls were repaired and painted, and the designers opted to stain the light oak floors and redwood decking a deep chocolate brown. "Our choice to use darker wood inside was meant to give the house a little more elegance, to make it not quite so simple, and to create more of a contrast between the white walls, dark floors, and the views beyond."
Marmol and Radziner acted as general contractors for the job, and built many of its new elements in their own shop. "Restoration is a kind of archaeology," Radziner explains. "And doing so much of the building ourselves allows us to give a high degree of sensitivity, responsiveness, and care to the artifact we are transforming."